JUSTICE WATCH : Never Forgivable

In late March, 1944, German soldiers murdered 335 Italian men and boys in the Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome. The massacre, the worst atrocity committed on Italian soil during World War II, was a Nazi SS reprisal for the deaths of 33 Germans at the hands of partisans and fulfillment of a threat that 10 Italians would be shot for every German soldier killed by the Resistance.

Among those in the killing party that day was SS Capt. Erich Priebke. For almost half a century Priebke has lived openly in the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche, one of many hundreds of Nazis who found postwar haven in Argentina. Last year Priebke admitted to an American television interviewer that he himself shot two of the 335. Echoing the defense heard in the Nuremberg war crimes trials that began 50 years ago this month, Priebke said he was “only obeying orders.”

This week Priebke, now 82, was extradited to Italy, where next month a hearing is scheduled to determine whether there is enough evidence to bring him to trial. His last words on leaving Argentina were expressions of hope that Italy would soon set him free. All who cherish justice should be hoping instead that he will be speedily tried and convicted. Such steps are demanded not just for Priebke’s own crimes but as an imperative reminder, at a time when atrocities in Bosnia assault the civilized conscience, that there can be no sanctuary, no escape, no forgiveness for those who, whether they give or take orders, are responsible for acts that outrage human decency.