A German judge is said to be thwarting the hunt for the world's most-wanted Nazi war criminal.
Nazi hunter closes in on 'Dr Death'
BERLIN // The Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter said he had received an "exceptionally good" lead that "Dr Death", the Center's most wanted Nazi war criminal, was hiding close to where his daughter lives in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. Efraim Zuroff said he has received credible information on the possible whereabouts of Aribert Heim, who tops the Wiesenthal Center's list of most wanted Nazi war criminals. Heim was an Austrian medical doctor in the SS, who is alleged to have killed hundreds of concentration camp inmates during the Second World War by conducting such torturous experiments as injecting toxic compounds into their hearts.
Heim decorated his office with human body parts, even using the skull of a man he decapitated as a paperweight. Mr Zuroff is in South America to launch an ad campaign for his "Operation Last Chance" initiative to hunt down Nazi war criminals before they die of old age. "We got two different leads, one with potential and one which we believe to be exceptionally good," Mr Zuroff said by telephone from his hotel in Santiago.
Mr Zuroff said he believed Heim, 94, was still alive. His children have not taken over a bank account of ?1.2 million (Dh7m) in his name in Berlin, which would be theirs if they could present proof of his death. Mr Zuroff, who is due to travel to Patagonia this week, said the Chilean authorities were also working on the case. He said it is not clear whether he will meet Heim's daughter, who was born in 1942. "She's his illegitimate daughter by his mistress. I believe the daughter holds the key to this," said Mr Zuroff, a Holocaust historian who heads the Jerusalem office of the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Asked whether it was wise to make the latest lead public given that it might thwart the hunt, Mr Zuroff said: "He's underground already. We want to meet people who know the family and who may be able to tell us where he is." Heim was arrested by US troops in 1945 and held for more than two and a half years, but for unknown reasons he was never prosecuted. He worked as a gynaecologist in Germany until 1962, when it was reported he fled after receiving a tip-off about his impending arrest.
Sightings had also placed him in Egypt, Spain, Argentina and other countries. In an interview with The National last week, Mr Zuroff accused a German judge of obstructing the search for Heim. He said Hans-Richard Neerforth at the district court in Baden-Baden, southwestern Germany, had refused a request from police to allow wire tapping in the search for him. "The judge in the case, Neerforth, refused to approve investigation requests by the German police that are routinely approved in any murder case in Germany," Mr Zuroff said.
"Our sense is that there's some obstruction here and it's very unfortunate given the fact that we're talking about the most wanted Nazi war criminal in the world and someone whose capture would be of unique significance," Mr Zuroff said. "There's definitely reason to believe that he is alive." The district court of Baden-Baden denied the accusation. "This case is very close to our hearts and we're conducting it very thoroughly," a spokesman said.
The court had made 11 international requests for legal assistance to states within and outside Europe since 2005 and had taken a large number of investigative steps, the spokesman said. Only one application for wire tapping had been rejected because it did not fulfil the necessary legal criteria, he said. The reward for information leading to Heim's capture stands at ?310,000 (Dh1.79 million), of which ?130,000 has been put up by the German government, ?130,000 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and ?50,000 by the Austrian government.
Mr Zuroff praised Germany for making progress in two other cases, though. The country's main Holocaust crimes prosecution authority said last month it would seek the extradition of an alleged former Nazi death camp guard, John Demjanjuk, 88, from the United States to prosecute him on charges that he was involved in killing Jewish prisoners at the Sobibor death camp. However, the process of extraditing him is expected to take some time and Demjanjuk's lawyer has said he was too ill to be transported to Germany.
Mr Zuroff heads the Jerusalem office of the US-based Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust. The organisation is named after Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian-Jewish concentration camp survivor, who was famous for pursuing Nazi war criminals after the war. The old age reached by surviving Nazi war criminals was no reason for them to be spared prosecution, Mr Zuroff said.
"The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and the killers. We don't think people deserve a medal for reaching an old age. If we were to set a chronological limit on the prosecution of genocide, the practical implication would be that we say you can get away with genocide, which would be untenable and obviously outrageous. "Besides, we have an obligation to the victims to try and find the people who turned them into victims and bring them to justice."
Operation Last Chance was launched in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in July 2002 and then extended to other European countries. It offers financial rewards for information that leads to the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals, and has already yielded the names of about 500 suspects from 20 different countries. Since 2001, 76 convictions against Nazi war criminals have been obtained, at least 48 new indictments have been filed, and hundreds of new investigations have been initiated.
A lack of political will in many countries, however, meant that many of the investigations never led to convictions, Mr Zuroff said. "Don't be fooled by the number of investigations because they rarely become trials," Mr Zuroff said. "Countries are under pressure to investigate so they open investigations, but have absolutely no intention of completing them." He described the lack of co-operation in many eastern European countries as "terrible" and said Austria in particular was a "paradise for war criminals, a place where Nazi war criminals have the least to fear".
The centre last month called for a panel of international medical experts to assess the health of the alleged Croatian Nazi war criminal Milivoj Asner, who is living in Klagenfurt, Austria, where he fled after the centre exposed him. Austrian authorities have refused to extradite the former police chief to Croatia on the grounds that he is suffering from dementia, but a British journalist who interviewed him said he found him to be lucid.
"His tranquil life in Klagenfurt, protected by the Austrian legal system, is an insult to his many victims and their families," Mr Zuroff said. Asner, who is wanted for war crimes in his native Croatia, is alleged to have served as the police chief of Pozega in the Second World War and ordered the destruction of the local Serb, Jewish and Roma communities, "It gets harder and harder, the problem is not finding them or finding the evidence, the problem is getting the governments to do what they're supposed to do, the problem is a lack of political will more than anything else." Mr Zuroff said Operation Last Chance was targeting lower-ranking people who facilitated the Holocaust, not just in Austria and Germany but in eastern Europe. There were likely to be hundreds if not thousands of them still alive, he said.
"My policy is to give priority to people who have the greatest share of responsibility but the major perpetrators are no longer alive. The people that we're dealing with are middle rank and lower." In every country occupied by Germany, the Nazis had local helpers who in many cases actually participated in murder, Mr Zuroff said. Some of these people were relatively young at the time. "With the advances of modern medicine people live longer, and consequently many of them are alive and healthy enough to be put on trial."
Operation Last Chance was extended to South America last year to hunt down Nazi war criminals who fled there. "In concrete terms, the operation in South America hasn't yielded as much as we hoped, but ? we're having an ad campaign and we're still hoping to perhaps find a few perpetrators who can finally be brought to justice," Mr Zuroff said. @Email:email@example.com