Nazi hunter denounces Austria as a 'paradise for war criminals'

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The Independent Online

A director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre has described Austria as a "paradise for Nazi war criminals" and bitterly criticised its government and legal authorities for failing to bring suspected Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

Efraim Zuroff, the director of the centre's Jerusalem branch, accused Austria of being utterly complacent. "Austria is a paradise for Nazi war criminals," Mr Zuroff told a press conference in Vienna. "Its investigation of suspects is inadequate and the legal position is outrageous. In Austria war criminals are freely able to talk about their crimes," he added.

Mr Zuroff's broadside followed a meeting he held yesterday with the Austrian Interior and Justice ministers as part of the Wiesenthal Centre's Operation Last Chance, which is trying to bring elderly Nazi war crimes suspects to trial before they die.

The Wiesenthal Centre has identified 83 suspects in Austria who are still alive. But Mr Zuroff said that the 77 suspects currently being investigated by the Austrian authorities were being dealt with "slowly and passively" and that little effort was being made to press charges against them.

They include Aribert Heim, a medical doctor who experimented on Jewish prisoners at the Mauthausen concentration camp; Millivoj Asner, a former Croatian police officer suspected of sending hundreds to the death camps and Erna Wallisch, a concentration camp guard who allegedly escorted prisoners to the gas chambers.

Of the three, Heim is the most notorious Nazi still on the run. He murdered hundreds of prisoners at the Mauthausen camp by conducting gratuitous medical experiments on them during the seven weeks that he spent there in 1941.

A court that tried Heim in his absence in 1979 concluded that he "wallowed in the fear of death suffered by his victims" while performing brutal operations on fully conscious prisoners. Austria launched a criminal investigation into his case in 1957. He is now 91 and there have been alleged sightings of him in South America, Egypt, Spain and Germany.

However, Mr Zuroff said yesterday that he had been told by Karin Gastinger, the Austrian Justice Minister, that "a new law" would be needed if Austria was to contribute to increasing the $325,000 (£180,000) reward currently offered by Germany and the Wiesenthal Centre for information leading to Heim's arrest.

"We don't need a new law to be passed. We need action," Mr Zuroff said. "If Heim is caught alive and brought to justice, there is no question that it will be the most important Nazi war crimes trial in 30 years," he added.

Mr Zuroff also accused the Austrian authorities of dragging their feet in the case of Asner, who holds dual Austrian and Croatian citizenship.

Croatia charged Asner with crimes against humanity last year and asked Austria to extradite him to stand trial. Austria refused on the ground that he held Austrian citizenship.

"The terrible reality of this country is that Asner cannot be brought to trial in Austria for his crimes," Mr Zuroff said. "Austria owes it to the victims of the Nazi regime to to do everything in its power to bring suspected war criminals to justice," he added.

The Austrian government would not comment on Mr Zuroff's criticisms yesterday.