Italian trial of SS officer revives memories of massacre

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Former SS Capt. Erich Priebke, 82, is charged with "multiple homicide aggravated by cruelty" for his role in the March 24, 1944 massacre of 335 men and boys in the Ardeatine Caves, outside Rome.

Adolf Hitler ordered the massacre in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans that killed 33 German soldiers the day before.

On Monday, defense lawyer Velio Di Rezze reportedly told the military court, in what was the first detailed defense of Priebke, that the massacre was an apt reprisal for the attack on the soldiers and that it should not be considered a war crime.

The trial, which convened May 8, will also include a civilian lawsuit brought by relatives of the victims.

The trial is expected to be one of the last of its kind, given the advanced age of victims and perpetrators.

About 75 of the massacre victims were Jewish.

If convicted, Priebke could be sentenced to life imprisonment. Capital punishment was outlawed in Italy after World War II.

The prosecution said it expects a verdict in about a month.

Priebke, who was extradited to Italy from Argentina last year, has admitted to drawing up the list of victims, checking the names off at the caves and personally shooting two people.

But he contended that he would have been killed himself if he had not carried out orders.

"The defense aims to show the defendant isn't subject to punishment because he was obeying a legitimate order," Di Rezze said in opening arguments.

The prosecutor told the court that in addition to proving Priebke's guilt, he also sought to give a firm grounding to higher legal principles. "This is a trial to reconfirm certain principles of law and of humanity that were violated with brutality," Intelisano said.

Among those packed into the small military courtroom were more than two dozen relatives of the victims, appearing as plaintiffs in the accompanying civil case.

"Verifying the facts is necessary so that memory and justice can really mean something to the relatives," said Marcello Gentili, a lawyer for the civil suit.

Prosecutors read a list of more than 80 witnesses they hoped to call in the civil trial. They also entered into evidence seven history books.

Among the witnesses they hoped to call were two former SS members, Col. Dietrich Baelitz, 89, and Cpl. Heinrich Perathoner, 77.

Judge Agostino Quistelli approved 10 witnesses, adding that he would decide on the rest this week.

Priebke has been front-page news in Italian newspapers since an American television news team found him in Argentina in 1994.

While Jews made up less than one-quarter of the Ardeatine Caves victims, the attitude of Roman Jews toward the case has received particular attention in the media.

There is "no spirit of vengeance" among Italian Jews, said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

"But," she added, "this is probably one of the last such trials in Europe, and it is useful that the details and truth come out."

In the old Jewish ghetto near the Tiber River, where many Jews still live, the Priebke trial was the main topic of conversation.

Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff recently touched off a controversy by suggesting that if convicted, Priebke should be kept under house arrest rather than in prison because of his advanced age.

Graziella Limentani, 75, proprietor of a pastry shop in the ghetto, lost her husband and 16 other members of her family to Rome's Nazi occupiers.

She said she sees no reason why any form of mercy should be granted to Priebke.

"If I could, I would make him suffer the same fate as my husband," she said. "Anyway, I hope they give him the maximum penalty there is because he truly deserves it."