Priebke verdict causes outcry authorities seek retrial

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ROME — Jewish leaders here and abroad have joined an international chorus of criticism after a Rome military court freed former SS Capt. Erich Priebke while at the same time declaring him guilty of taking part in Italy's worst World War II atrocity.

The Aug. 1 ruling, which embarrassed the Italian nation, sent local officials scrambling to find legal solutions to ensure that the 83-year-old Priebke was punished for crimes he admitted committing.

Italy's justice minister ordered Priebke rearrested just eight hours after he was freed. The order came after Germany submitted a request for Priebke's extradition.

Prosecutors vowed to appeal the verdict — or to find another way to get the case retried.

"A great opportunity was lost which could have been a definitive condemnation of a regime that turned Europe upside down 50 years ago," said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

"We expected the court to express with its verdict a strong message that could have transmitted to young people the general evils and dangers that stem from authoritarianism, violence, extreme nationalism and racism."

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had been instrumental in tracking Priebke down in Argentina in 1994, issued a blistering condemnation of the court's decision.

"Aug. 1, 1996, will go down as a day of infamy in Italian history. This is another black mark in the Italian justice system and a slap in the face of his victims and their grieving families," the statement said.

Other American Jewish organizations issued similarly harsh statements.

The verdict also brought protests from Jewish groups in Germany and Argentina. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said it reopened "a wound never forgotten by Italians."

On Monday night, senior Italian political officials joined Jewish leaders, the German ambassador and at least 5,000 people at a rally in Rome to protest the verdict.

Speaker after speaker condemned the verdict freeing Priebke and declared that the ex-SS captain must still be punished.

"If Italy frees without punishment the Nazi Erich Priebke, known to be guilty, it would be a national shame witnessed by the entire world," Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli told the crowd.

Rome's Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff said the judges who rendered the verdict "lived outside of the world."

The verdict, which was read Aug. 1 by presiding Judge Agostino Quistelli, hit Italy like a bombshell.

After a dramatic three-month trial, the court found Priebke guilty of participating in the March 24, 1944 massacre of 335 men and boys, some 75 of them Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.

The massacre was personally ordered by Hitler in reprisal for a partisan bomb that killed 33 German soldiers.

But by admitting extenuating circumstances, the court cleared Priebke of the specific war-crimes charges of premeditation and cruelty, thus reducing the gravity of the crime. This enabled it to fall under a 30-year statute of limitations, which had already expired.

Priebke, who had admitted to killing two of the Ardeatine Caves victims, was declared a free man.

Protest and anger erupted immediately. Friends and relatives of the victims, who heard the verdict read while crowded into a corridor outside the courtroom, exploded into tears, curses and shouts of "Assassins!" and "Shame! Shame!"

Scores of protesters, many of them militant young Jews wearing kippot, chanted prayers, clashed with police and tried to storm the courthouse.

Priebke was prevented from leaving the courthouse for eight hours until Justice Minister Giovanni Maria Flick ordered him rearrested and had him escorted to a police van that took him to the civilian Regina Coeli prison in downtown Rome.

It was the same prison from which some of the Ardeatine Caves victims were rounded up.

Said a woman who was the daughter of one of the victims: "They have killed them a second time."

Italy's political leaders — from the far left to the far right — nearly unanimously expressed dismay about the verdict.

Parliament stood for a minute of silence; President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro met with families of the victims and declared that crimes remained crimes no matter how many years had passed.

Prodi and other Italian leaders made a pilgrimage to the Ardeatine Caves in a show of solidarity with the victims.

Jewish communities in Rome, Milan and Turin staged protest gatherings and prayers immediately after last week's verdict.

Meanwhile, prosecutors and judicial authorities began tackling the legal means to have Priebke retried. Prosecutors announced that they would appeal the case.

An appeal cannot be lodged until the original verdict is officially published — in about three months. Prosecutors and lawyers for Rome's Jewish community also said they would ask Italy's highest court to reconsider earlier requests to dismiss the military judges who brought the controversial verdict.