Lithuania's most famous Nazi war crimes suspect, Aleksandras Lileikis, who for years frustrated efforts by international Jewish groups to bring him to justice, has died in his homeland. He was 93.
Lileikis, whose trial was suspended repeatedly because of his poor health, was rushed to a hospital after a heart attack, his lawyer, Algirdas Matuiza, told the Baltic News Service.
Jewish organizations led by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center had long accused Lithuanian authorities of deliberately dragging out the court proceedings, hoping for a "biological solution" to the controversial trial.
They described his death Tuesday as a defeat for their efforts to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals in countries around the world.
"If Lithuanian legal institutions had worked properly, Lileikis would have been arrested just after his arrival in Lithuania, been put on trial immediately and would have died in prison where murderers should die," Efraim Zuroff, head of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Lithuania, a small Baltic country that suffered under occupation by both the Soviets and the Germans, has long had an ambivalent relationship to its Nazi past. Many Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis as a way to resist Soviet domination.
One of them was Lileikis, former police chief of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. He headed the Saugumas secret service, which answered to the Gestapo during World War II. Saugumas was responsible for enforcing the Germans' anti-Jewish decrees, including confining more than 60,000 Jews in the Vilnius ghetto until they could be executed.
About 220,000 Lithuanian Jews--95% of the prewar population--were killed during the war, including about 70,000 who were shot in the woods outside Vilnius. Lileikis was accused of turning dozens--if not thousands--of Jews over to their Nazi executioners.
After the war, Lileikis lived for a decade in Germany and eventually took up residence in Norwood, Mass., gaining U.S. citizenship in 1976. After information about his wartime activities came to light, the U.S. government stripped him of his citizenship. He fled to his homeland in 1996.
Lileikis always maintained his innocence, saying he did not know what happened to the Jews he turned over to Nazi authorities and asserting that he was a member of the anti-Nazi resistance.
But in a 1997 interview with a Vilnius newspaper, he acknowledged at least partial complicity in war crimes.
"All of us were collaborators--the whole nation, since it was acting according to Nazi laws," he told Respublika newspaper. "I needed to clothe myself and eat. I was offered a job, and I accepted it.
"I got into a mess, and I got stuck. . . . So probably I made mistakes," he said. "Mistakes, or let's say the 'crimes' which I am accused of."
Jewish groups accused Lithuanian authorities of pursuing the case lackadaisically. Lileikis' trial opened in September 1998, only to be immediately suspended because he failed to appear. His lawyer said Lileikis had been hospitalized. Two months later, he appeared briefly in court, only to collapse within minutes. He was rushed to the hospital.
Lileikis' trial was suspended indefinitely this June when he fell ill during a video link from his sickbed to the courtroom.
"Lileikis never repented. There are many people in Lithuania who regard him as a hero, and I am afraid that his funeral may even turn into a pro-fascist manifestation," Simonas Alperavicius, head of Lithuania's Jewish community, said by telephone Wednesday from Vilnius.
"I remember how during the trial someone shouted at me: 'Why are you Jews such vengeful people?' But I will say once again: It is not about vengeance, it is about justice. And that is why I am deeply sorry that Lileikis just narrowly escaped justice on Earth. Now it is up to God to do his justice on Lileikis. I am sure he won't escape this time."
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.