Nazi hunters switch focus to new evils
Modern violators of human rights are targets, says CARRIE JOHNSON
WASHINGTON: Earlier this year, almost 644km from downtown Washington, a Gulfstream IV jet carrying one of the country’s most infamous accused war criminals prepared to take flight as Justice Department prosecutors watched a live television feed.
The target of their rapt attention: one-time Nazi concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk, 89, who had outlasted a generation of American lawyers vying to deport him from the US for allegedly lying about his role in the Holocaust. One department attorney in the elite Office of Special Investigations died from cancer, another perished in an aircraft crash and still more had retired from public service in the nearly three decades since the investigation began.
“Even as the plane took off, I thought, ‘Something’s going to happen’,”recalled OSI director Eli Rosenbaum. “Because that was the case for so many years where if something could go wrong, it did go wrong.”
On that day in mid-May, Rosenbaum tracked the plane’s ascent from a Cleveland airport on a journey that would deliver Demjanjuk to Germany to face criminal charges. But as employees in the Justice Department office basked in the afterglow of one of their largest victories, their anxieties turned to a question: what next?
The subjects of their life’s work — people with ties to the Nazis who lied on citizenship forms to enter the US after World War II — are dead or dying. Current and former employees of the OSI say the unit is racing against the clock to extradite the few elderly Nazis still residing on American soil. Jonathan Drimmer, the lead trial lawyer in the government’s case against Demjanjuk, said Demjanjuk’s expulsion was “a coda on a generation of work to bring major Nazi war criminals to justice”.
Since the OSI began operations in 1979, it has won deportation orders against 107 people and prevented 180 more from entering the US through its watchlist programme. Yet it remains to be seen how the close-knit group of lawyers and historians, accustomed to combing document-rich archives in the Eastern Bloc for clues, will recast its mission from capturing Nazis to catching criminals who fled murderous conflicts in such diverse places as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The OSI focuses on revoking the citizenship of Americans who entered the country on false pretences by lying about their involvement in war crimes, rather than targeting wrongdoers based overseas.
The office continues to rack up international accolades for its work on the 20th century’s defining battles.
“It’s been the most important instrument in trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor who was hidden as a youth by a Catholic nun. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre gave the OSI an “A” for its efforts and concluded in a report last winter that it had “conducted the most successful programme of its kind in the world”.
But its staff levels have settled at around 28 employees after peaking in the 1980s at nearly double that figure. And many of the tools that served the unit so well are no longer available to its history detectives. Scrupulous record-keeping practices of the Nazis, including a handwritten 1942 ammunition order that prompted a court to revoke the citizenship of a Michigan man last year in what OSI lawyers call the “ultimate cold case”, largely do not exist in the modern conflicts. The Justice Department relies on co-operating witnesses, whose languages, cultures and motives may be difficult to translate.
Nonetheless, OSI leaders say they are aggressively shifting their focus to fresh cases, which now make up the bulk of the workload. The French historian is reading about Africa, investigators who studied Hungarian are practising Balkan languages, and plans are afoot to hire a Swahili linguist. They’re all scouring government records, diplomatic cables, refugee statements and truth commission reports for leads on perpetrators from every part of the world who may have relocated to America.
The unit has filed court charges in half a dozen new war crimes cases, led by an effort this year to revoke the citizenship of Lazare Kabaya Kobagaya, 82, of Topeka, Kansas, who allegedly took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Kobagaya, a member of the Hutu ethnic group, incited villagers at a marketplace to torch homes owned by rival Tutsi and urged others to kill Tutsi by making violent threats, according to the indictment. Prosecutors assert that Kobagaya lied in his citizenship application and in an interview with US immigration authorities.
Nearly 80 similar episodes involving modern war crimes remain under the office’s investigation. Congress formally expanded the OSI mandate to cover people who misrepresented their involvement in a wide array of genocides and human rights violations to enter the US in late 2004. But navigating sensitive diplomatic and political straits in international conflicts that are still “simmering under the surface”, deputy director Elizabeth White said, requires careful evaluation.
OSI director Rosenbaum, who joined the unit as an intern three decades ago, asserted that “unless mankind stops perpetrating these crimes, we will exist for the foreseeable future”.
The job is “suffused with sadness”, he said.
“Meet surviving victims, and it just demolishes you. One of our attorneys spent weeks in Rwanda and was very badly shaken. We had a visit here recently from the human rights ombudsman in Guatemala. There’s just no end.” – Washington Post
GENOCIDE MEMORIAL: Former Nazi hunters are now focusing on criminals who fled murderous conflicts in such diverse places as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.