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Nazi doctor who killed disabled children is freed

The Austrian psychiatrist accused of murdering handicapped children during the Nazi era walked free yesterday, after Vienna's high court declared him unfit to stand trial.

Heinrich Gross, 84, who rose to prominence after the Second World War despite his known role in the Nazis' euthanasia programme, was said to be suffering from dementia.

Last week he was giving lucid interviews to the Austrian press. Yesterday, he was struggling with basic questions. "Can you understand me?" Judge Karlheinz Seewald asked. "Badly," Dr Gross replied. "Can you understand anything?" - "A little."

Dr Gross was Austria's leading forensic psychiatrist after the war, working at the same court that was to decide his fate. But when his successor read out a report on the defendant's mental health, Dr Gross said he did not understand a word.

At this point the judge suspended proceedings indefinitely. "I very strongly doubt whether Dr Gross will ever be deemed fit to stand trial," the prosecutor, Michael Klackl, admitted.

Thus ends the third and final attempt to bring Dr Gross to book. In 1950 the case against him collapsed on a technicality. He was nearly put on trial in the 1980s but his crimes were notexempted from Austria's 30-year statute of limitations. New documentary evidence put Dr Gross in the dock at last for nine counts of murder.

More than 700 disabled children branded a burden to the Fatherland by him and his colleagues were killed. Dr Gross preserved their brains in jars, and dissected them during his glittering post-war career. The brains, still showing traces of the drug that killed them, were to have been used as evidence.

Now they can be finally laid to rest in a common grave, as silence descends once again on Austria's sinister past.