Priebkes prison term too lenient, critics say

ROME — The light sentences handed down against former Nazi SS Capt. Erich Priebke and former SS Maj. Karl Hass have evoked expressions of concern.

Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said the reduced sentences the two received Tuesday were a disappointment, but that "an important principle has been asserted: that there are no statutes of limitations on crimes against humanity."

Rome Mayor Francesco Ruttelli told reporters, "I imagine that some people might think that this sentence is too lenient, but it is not our role to judge that."

In this latest controversial development in the Priebke saga, a Rome military court judged him and co-defendant Hass guilty of participating in the World War II massacre of 335 Italians.

It sentenced both men to jail, but cited extenuating circumstances and drastically reduced their jail terms.

The court sentenced Priebke to 15 years but reduced the term to five years.

It sentenced Hass to 10 years and eight months, but reduced the sentence to eight months. Because Hass had been under house arrest since last November, he will not serve any time in jail.

Priebke may have as little as six months and 15 days left to serve because of time already spent in jail, according to his attorney, Carlo Taormina.

Military prosecutor Antonino Intelisano estimated that Priebke would face 18 months imprisonment.

Both former Nazi officers are in their 80s and in frail health, and both have been held under house arrest during the trial.

The prosecution had demanded a life sentence for Priebke and 24 years for Hass.

Both men were accused of taking part in the March 24, 1944 mass execution of 335 Italian men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome. About 75 of the victims were Jews.

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

The high-security courtroom at Rome's Rebibbia Prison was crowded with friends and relatives of the victims, representatives of the Jewish community and local dignitaries, including Rome's mayor.

Some friends and family of the victims wept as they heard the sentence.

This was the second trial against Priebke for his involvement in the massacre.

Last August, another military court ruled he was guilty of participating in the massacre, but said that because of extenuating circumstances and a statute of limitations he did not have to be punished.

The verdict sparked a public outcry that culminated in a crowd blocking Priebke from leaving the courthouse and then his re-arrest on a German extradition charge.

The verdict was later annulled on appeal and a new trial was ordered.

Hass, who was a prosecution witness in the first trial, was also charged after he admitted to taking part in the massacre.

Priebke and Hass admitted to killing two people each during the massacre.

Both men claimed in their defense that they were following orders from the Nazi high command and would have been killed themselves had they refused.

The court accepted this defense as a "mitigating circumstance" that served as the basis for reducing their sentences.

The Ardeatine Caves massacre is considered the worst Nazi atrocity to have taken place in Italy during World War II.

The affair erupted in May 1994, when an American television crew discovered Priebke in Argentina, where he had lived openly under his own name for nearly 50 years.

After 18 months of legal wrangling, he was extradited to Italy in November 1995 and went on trial for the first time in May 1996.