SS killer back in prison as Germans act

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Rome - Just hours after a military court found him guilty of murder but set him free, former SS Captain Erich Priebke was under arrest in a Rome prison yesterday as Italian authorities tried to limit the damage from one of the most controversial judicial decisions since the Second World War.

Italian police rearrested Priebke during the night at the court, ending an eight-hour siege by angry young protesters who had blocked him inside and scuffled with police following the verdict. He was taken to Rome's Regina Coeli jail, where some of the 335 men and boys, including 75 Jews, shot in an SS massacre in 1944 spent their final hours before they were trucked to the Ardeatine caves for execution.

The rearrest of the 83-year-old German on a temporary detention order followed notice from Germany that prosecutors there intended to seek his extradition for two killings.

But it was far from clear that a German extradition request, which Bonn has 40 days to submit, would succeed.

"I'm not making any predictions," Italian Justice Minister, Giovani Maria Flick, said when asked about the chances.

German officials said it was also not clear whether Rome could extradite Priebke pending a planned appeal by the Italian military prosecutor against Thursday's verdict. Nor were they certain he could be tried, because European law bars prosecuting someone twice on the same charges.

Argentina, which agreed to Priebke's extradition to Italy in November 1995, must give its consent to any onward move. It has already said Priebke will not be allowed back to rejoin his wife in the Andean ski resort where they have lived since 1948.

Priebke had denied throughout his three-month trial that he played a leading role in the massacre, carried out in reprisal for a partisan bomb attack on German troops and the worst atrocity in Italy during the Second World War.

The court found Priebke responsible for multiple killings and rejected his key defence - that he would have been shot if he had disobeyed orders. But it took his age and clean post-war record into account in mitigation and ruled that because he did not act with premeditation and cruelty, punishment had lapsed after 30 years under a statute of limitation.

The ruling that made Priebke a free man was condemned across the political spectrum, by Italian and foreign Jewish groups and by a press that blamed the military court for bringing Italy's legal system into worldwide disrepute.

La Repubblica ran a front-page cartoon of Adolf Hitler in Hell reading a newspaper and musing: "I think I'll appeal to Italian justice as well."

The Vatican weighed in yesterday, with its semi-official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano saying that the verdict had reopened old wounds.

"Priebke's fresh arrest does not soften the bitterness of a verdict which seems to cancel out the memory of terrible events, reopening a wound in Italians." it said. "The horrors of mass graves provoked by old and recent wars cannot be written off by the law."

The verdict has led to pressure in parliament to scrap Italy's military justice system altogether. Giuseppe Ayala, undersecretary of state at the justice ministry, called military courts a "last wartime relic that must be wiped out". Pietro Barrera, a legal official with Rome City Council, added: "Military justice is the least appropriate to deal with matters of this type."