Tribunal votes against Jews in Priebke trial

ROME — A military tribunal has rejected a request by Italian Jews to transfer the war crimes trial of former Nazi SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass to a civilian court.

Priebke, 83, a former SS captain, and the 84-year-old Hass, a former SS major, are on trial before a military court for complicity in the March 1944 massacre of 335 men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome. About 75 of the victims were Jews.

Lawyers representing Rome's Jewish community, which is a civil plaintiff in the trial, had said the two should be tried for genocide, which is punishable under Italy's penal, not military, code.

Both the defense and prosecution opposed the request.

The tribunal rejected the request at a court session April 24, when the prosecution opened its case against the two.

"Priebke and Hass were voluntary executors of an illegitimate order," military prosecutor Antonino Intelisano told the court in his opening statement.

Both men have admitted taking part in the massacre but claim they had to follow orders or face being killed themselves. The mass execution was ordered by the Nazis in reprisal for an Italian partisan bomb that killed 33 German soldiers.

In August, a military court found Priebke guilty of involvement in the massacre. But the court freed him, ruling that he could not be punished because the statute of limitations had run out and because of other extenuating circumstances.

That verdict triggered protests by family members of the victims, who barricaded the courthouse for hours until Priebke was rearrested, pending an extradition request from Germany.

Three months later, the verdict was annulled by an appeals court, which ruled that the judges had been openly biased in Priebke's favor, and ordered a new trial for Priebke.

Hass was a witness in the first Priebke trial and later was charged himself.

Last week's court session in a fortified courtroom at Rebibbia Prison on the outskirts of Rome came on the eve of a national holiday marking Italy's liberation from Nazi occupation by the Allies in 1945.

Hours before the court session opened, unknown persons hurled white paint at two plaques outside the Ardeatine Caves, scene of the wartime massacre and now a national shrine.

During Liberation Day ceremonies last Friday, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro laid a wreath at the caves.