Nazi hun­ters switch fo­cus to new evils

Mod­ern vi­o­la­tors of hu­man rights are tar­gets, says CAR­RIE JOHN­SON

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.

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