War crime suspect ruled 'unfit' for extradition

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The Independent Online

An alleged war criminal whose battalion was accused of murdering thousands of Jews has been declared too ill to be extradited from Britain for trial in Lithuania.

Anton Gecas, 85, who won the German Iron Cross before switching sides and earning the Polish Military Medal, is thought to be close to death in an Edinburgh hospital after suffering two strokes.

Yesterday, Jim Wallace, Justice Minister for the Scottish Executive, appeared to end what had been a decade-long battle to have Mr Gecas brought to trial when he confirmed that an extradition request by the Lithuanian government had been turned down.

"The assessments from the doctor in charge of Mr Gecas in hospital, from a psycho- geriatrician and also from an independent medical assessment arranged by the Crown Office, all indicate that Anton Gecas is not fit to attend court or able to understand the legal proceedings against him," Mr Wallace said. "There is therefore no realistic prospect of serving the warrant for Mr Gecas' arrest, or of him appearing in court for committal proceedings."

The minister promised that "in the unlikely event" of Mr Gecas improving, he would be handed over to the Lithuanians, but he stressed: "This wasn't a question of fine judgement being made. There was really no doubt at all that he was unfit to stand trial."

Mr Gecas has been fighting to retain his freedom since 1992 when he lost a libel action against Scottish Television, which had alleged that as Antanas Gecevicius he had led a special police battalion that had committed atrocities against thousands of Jews. He moved to Scotland in 1947 and worked as an engineer for the National Coal Board.

Lord Milligan, who heard the libel case, said he was "clearly satisfied" that Mr Gecas had taken part in a number of killings and war crimes against civilians. Mr Gecas was a lieutenant commanding a platoon in a battalion responsible for killing thousands of Lithuanian Jews taken from city ghettos and small towns to be shot.

By the end of 1941, there were so few Lithuanian Jews left that the battalion was taken into Belarus to continue the job there.

Mr Gecas has admitted serving in the SS-led police battalion, but denied involvement in any murders. He is now a British citizen. Yesterday, Dr Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, which has campaigned for 15 years to bring Mr Gecas to trial, vowed to continue its fight, arguing that Mr Gecas did not deserve such "good luck".

"We are very frustrated and upset that it appears that Mr Gecas will elude justice because of his medical condition," Dr Zuroff said. "Having said that, we are calling upon the Scottish Executive to institute periodic examinations of Mr Gecas' health because, if he does recover, we would expect him to be sent immediately to Lithuania to stand trial.

"At the same time, we are calling on the Lithuanian government to start a trial in absentia, which is possible under Lithuanian law in the case of war crimes. Mr Gecas does not deserve this kind of good luck.

"This is not the end of the road, he is not off the hook.

"I can promise you that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre will do everything possible to see to it that he does stand trial or, at the minimum, that his crimes are exposed in a trial in Vilnius."

Mr Gecas has repeatedly denied committing war crimes. He is having treatment at the Liberton Hospital in the south of Edinburgh.