Friday, June 20, 2008

Austria accused of shielding Nazi suspect

Milivoj Asner caused a stir just by showing up at a soccer game: The frail 95-year-old is ranked No. 4 on a leading list of most-wanted Nazi war crimes suspects.

Now Austria's most notorious far-right politician, former Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, has touched off an even bigger scandal by praising Asner as a "treasured" neighbor who should be allowed to live out his days in peace.

"This could only happen in Austria," Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Associated Press.

Officials in southern Austria, where Asner lives openly despite being indicted for crimes against humanity in his native Croatia, contend the retired police chief is mentally unfit for questioning, extradition or trial.

But Asner's recent appearance at a "fan zone" near his home in the southern city of Klagenfurt - where he reportedly looked fit and lucid as he and his wife watched Croatia play in the European Championship - has some questioning whether this alpine country with a tortured World War II past is shielding him from justice.

Asner stands accused of persecuting hundreds of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies and dispatching them to their deaths in WWII-era Croatia, which was ruled by a Nazi puppet regime.

"Austria has the habit of closing its eyes," renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld told French television Thursday. The Asner case, he said, is fresh proof the country is a safe haven for suspected war criminals.

Haider's impassioned defense of Asner has only reinforced that impression.

Haider, who brought the Freedom Party into Austria's coalition government in 2000 on a platform tinged with anti-Semitic and xenophobic undertones, is the governor of the province of Carinthia where Asner lives.

"He's lived peacefully among us for years, and he should be able to live out the twilight of his life with us," Haider told the newspaper Der Standard this week.

"This is a nice family. We really treasure this family," he was quoted as saying.

Such praise is unconscionable, said Zuroff, who has been pressuring the Austrian government to arrest Asner and hand him over for trial as part of "Operation: Last Chance" - an effort to bring aging top suspects to justice before they die.

"This is clearly a reflection of the political atmosphere which exists in Austria and which in certain circles is extremely sympathetic to suspected Nazi war criminals," Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Israel.

Asner, he added, "has never showed any remorse for actions which affected the fates of hundreds of people."

Asner's indictment alleges he actively enforced racist laws while police chief in the eastern Croatian town of Pozega in 1941-42, and sent his victims to a Croat-run death camp. The Wiesenthal Center ranks him No. 4 on a list of 10 top Nazi fugitives.

Asner has maintained his innocence, and in an interview aired Thursday on state-run Croatian television, declared: "My conscience is clear."

"I am ready to come to face the court in Croatia, but I'm not in the best health," Asner said, adding that if the judges were honest, "they would have to acquit me."

He acknowledged he participated in deportations of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, but insisted the deportees were sent to their homelands and not to camps.

Austria's Justice Ministry said it is reviewing a request from Zuroff to make a fresh assessment of Asner's physical and mental state and prove he is suffering from dementia as experts have ruled in the past.

Without a new evaluation declaring him physically and mentally fit, "our hands are tied," said ministry spokesman Thomas Geiblinger.

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