Germany seeks to extradite Priebke witness

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The Independent Online
The SS officer who claims to know the whereabouts of the missing Nazi loot and was the key witness in the botched trial of Erich Priebke is wanted by his Fatherland. The German authorities confirmed yesterday that they were seeking the extradition from Italy of former SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Karl Hass, now aged 84, and intended to try him for the massacre of 335 civilians in Italy during the Second World War.

Unlike Priebke, who fled to Argentina after the war, Mr Hass had spent the last 50 years in Italy, not wanted by a soul. Assumed dead, he was discovered by the prosecution in May, staying at his daughter's house in Switzerland.

He was persuaded to return to Italy for the trial, and expected to nail Priebke with his testimony. But on the eve of his court appearance, Mr Hass appeared to change his mind. He tried to climb down from the window of his first-floor hotel room, slipped and broke his pelvis.

The court had to assemble around Mr Hass's hospital bed to hear his account of the massacre in the Ardeatine Caves. Describing the killing of 335 civilians as "a moment of idiocy", he proceeded to tear the prosecution's case to shreds, insisting that Priebke had had no choice but follow orders. In the course of his testimony, Mr Hass did, however, contrive to implicate himself directly in the massacre.

His admission is enough to convict him in a German court. The Bonn Justice Ministry is seeking the extradition of both Priebke, who was found guilty but pronounced unpunishable by an Italian military court last week, and Mr Hass. In Priebke's case German prosecutors have 40 days to hand over his dossier to the Italians, but bringing him to justice is complicated by the circumstances of his extradition from Argentina. Mr Hass's chances of returning to his homeland seem brighter.

If he is handed over to Germany his trial would not only focus on the question of war guilt, but might also reveal the secret of the Nazis' continued prosperity after the war. In interviews Mr Hass had hinted at an international conspiracy involving Western governments and intelligence agencies to shield war criminals from justice. He himself had been allowed to live in peace in Italy, he told the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero.

He also said that some of the gold looted by the Nazis from occupied countries still lay buried beneath a fortress near Bolzano, while the remainder had vanished from its hiding place near Rome.

By arguing that he and Priebke had a choice about carrying out the order to execute civilians, Mr Hass refuted the war criminals' notorious "Nuremberg defence". Had he stuck to this version in his testimony, Priebke would probably be serving a jail sentence today.