Key witness in Nazi war crimes trial 'unreliable'

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The Independent Online

One of Germany's last major war crimes trials was on the verge of collapse yesterday after a former leader of a Nazi assassination squad, accused of murdering Slovakian civilians in 1945, was freed by judges who ruled that a key prosecution witness suffered memory lapses and was unreliable.

One of Germany's last major war crimes trials was on the verge of collapse yesterday after a former leader of a Nazi assassination squad, accused of murdering Slovakian civilians in 1945, was freed by judges who ruled that a key prosecution witness suffered memory lapses and was unreliable.

Ladislaw Niznansky, 86, a former officer in the Nazi Edelweiss unit, deployed to eradicate Slovak partisans at the end of the Second World War, was released after spendingnine months in judicial custody pending his trial in Munich.

"This decision is a sign that my trial will reach a satisfactory conclusion," said Mr Niznansky, who worked for the American-funded Radio Free Europe after the war. "Right from the beginning, I have maintained that I am innocent," he added.

Mr Niznansky is charged with involvement in the murder of 164 Slovak citizens in the spring of 1945. He is also accused of personally murdering 20 of those killed during the operation to crush opposition to the Nazi puppet regime.

But yesterday Manfred Götzl, the presiding judge, ruled as inadmissible evidence from Jan Repasky, a 79-year-old Slovakian who had claimed to have seen the killings.

A court psychologist's report concluded that because of his age, Mr Repasky suffered from "memory gaps" which were filled with "subjective observations". "Mr Repasky has not been able to substantiate his previous evidence in which he claimed to have seen Niznansky single-handedly killing 20 people," Judge Götzl said.

Prosecutors yesterday dismissed suggestions that their case against Mr Niznansky had been substantially undermined by the judge's ruling and said the trial could continue into next year. "The court will continue to hear all the evidence," said Konstantin Kuchenbauer, the chief state prosecutor.

However Steffen Ufer, Mr Niznansky's defence lawyer, said the ruling represented a turning point in the trial. "If the truth can no longer be established, then we will soon discover that the powers of the judiciary are limited," he said.

A Czechoslovak court convicted Mr Niznansky in absentia in 1962 of murdering Slovak civilians, based on evidence given by Mr Repasky. But during the Munich trial, Mr Repasky's submissions were found to have differed substantially from his earlier testimony.

Mr Niznansky maintained throughout his trial that his Nazi superiors had told him he faced a choice between being dispatched to a concentration camp or joining the Edelweiss battalion which was set up to crush partisan opposition to the regime after the Germans invaded Slovakia in 1944.

He claimed that he was not present when the murders took place. After the war Mr Niznansky served briefly as an officer in the Czechoslovak army before fleeing to Austria where he worked for US military intelligence. He was a journalist with Radio Free Europe from 1957 until 1983.

His German trial began last month, four years after the Czech authorities asked for help to track down Mr Niznansky, who became a German citizen in 1996.

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