Lithuania’s reported move to exonerate at least 1,000 people convicted of war crimes by Soviet courts violates an explicit agreement by the new government’s chief prosecutor to exclude mass murder, genocide and other war crimes from any annulments of Soviet justice, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Thursday.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based center, which for decades has tracked Nazi war criminals and compiled data on them, said that Arturas Paulauskas, the procurator general of the new government, gave that promise on June 24 to Ephraim Zuroff, the center’s representative in Jerusalem and a former U.S. Justice Department investigator.
Hier said that Zuroff, accompanying a group of Israeli Parliament members to Lithuania to urge the new government not to free convicted war criminals, was assured by Paulauskas that nobody convicted of mass murder or similar crimes would be exonerated.
But in mid-August, Hier said, “we were informed by Jewish activists in Lithuania that this was happening.” He said that the Wiesenthal Center has been seeking names and trial records of the 1,000 or more convicted war criminals exonerated so far.
On Aug. 27, Hier said, he formally appealed to Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis to stop the amnesties. “It is unthinkable that your country, even as it rejoins the family of democratic nations, would grant rehabilitation to some of Hitler’s worst collaborators,” Hier wrote.
Hier said Thursday that the center has data proving that at least 120 of the 1,000 convicts granted amnesties--many of whom have been given back pay to compensate for the time they were in prison--were members of the notorious Lithuanian 12th Auxiliary Battalion. The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal identified the unit as formed exclusively for the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews.
The Associated Press reported Thursday from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius that the government has agreed to review two of the pardons granted to people condemned in Soviet courts.
Prosecutor Vidmantas Vaicekauskas denied that Lithuania has deliberately cleared Nazi war criminals, but he acknowledged that some may have been inadvertently cleared, the AP reported.
“It was possible that some would slip through,” said Vaicekauskas, who is in charge of rehabilitation in the procurator general’s office. But he insisted that the overwhelming majority of the pardons granted so far were valid.
The AP reported that Lithuania has pardoned about 35,000 people for a variety of crimes since 1988, when the Baltic republic began looking into the Soviet repression of its nationalist movement.
Reports of the amnesties have begun to provoke protest among American Jewish groups. They also are likely to cause problems for plans of the Bush Administration and Congress to extend economic aid as well as diplomatic recognition to the fledgling nation.
California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) warned that the amnesties, “if not checked, could have very serious negative consequences--which would be tragic in light of the strong support all of us have given to the right of self-determination. I cannot believe that any member of Congress will accept any excuse for allowing Hitler’s henchmen to go free.”
Berman said he is drafting a letter of protest to Landsbergis, which he also will circulate on Capitol Hill next week.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that the Administration is relying on assurances of the new government that convicted war criminals would be excluded from any amnesties granted by Lithuania. But he declined to confirm that the Administration is aware that convicted war criminals have been freed, as the New York Times reported in its Thursday editions.
“It’s our understanding that the Lithuanian law of last year that annulled illegitimate convictions by Soviet authorities also specifically excluded genocide and the murder of civilians from that,” Boucher said. “So we would expect that they would be acting in accordance with that law. We will be following this up with them to find out more about the actions that are being taken now.”
The White House had no public comment, but one official said privately that the United States has not yet determined whether the Lithuanian action violates either justice or a prior commitment. “The picture is just very murky,” the official said. “It could be that these are people the Russians arrested unjustly.”
American Jewish groups see an ominous revival of a dark chapter in Lithuania’s past.
Hier said the Wiesenthal Center’s Los Angeles office was deluged Thursday with telephoned protests from Lithuanian Jews.
The American Jewish Congress, a leading Jewish umbrella group headquartered in New York, issued a statement from its president, Robert K. Lifton, expressing shock and foreboding that Lithuania’s new government is taking steps that “reflect a return to what appear to be old and retrograde policies and practices.”