Right in this month three years ago, the UN-backed genocide tribunal in Cambodia convicted former Khmer Rouge officer to 35 years of imprisonment. Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed nearly three decades and a half ago. He supervised a prison where as many as 16,000 people were tortured before being executed.
Also found guilty of torture and murder, the 67-year-old Duch was to serve just 19 years in prison as his sentence was cut by 16 years for the time he spent in military prison. The verdict did not make the prosecution, survivors and families of the victims happy, who sought retrial.
A statement by the prosecutors said the judgment “gives insufficient weight to the gravity of Duch’s crimes and his role and his willing participation in those crimes.”
Four senior former Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody for trial for the estimated 1.7 million people who during the 1975-79 communist Khmer Rouge regime.
Tomoyuki Yamashita, a general of the defeated Japanese army in the World War II, was hanged in Manila on February 23, 1946. The fate of this officer, a first-class fighting man, affirmed something new in the annals of war. For Yamashita did not die for murder, or for directing other men to do murder in his name. Yamashita lost his life not because he was a bad or evil commander, but simply because he was a commander, and the men he commanded had done unspeakably evil things.
Yamashita was tried by military commission, a panel of five general officers, all American, sitting in the great ballroom of the bullet-pocked US high commissioner’s residence in Manila.
In May this year, Germany announced the arrest of Hans Lipschis, age 93, for complicity in mass murders that took place at the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he served as a guard in 1941-1945. Lipschis is the first to be charged from among a list of 50 former Auschwitz guards wanted for trial for killing innocent people in death camps during WWII.
Earlier in 2011, a German court convicted Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, who had served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. His conviction nearly seven decades since the WWII ended set a legal precedent for interpreting evidence more broadly than before.
Until then, German prosecutors essentially had to prove that a suspect had committed specific crimes against specific victims at a particular time and date, and such direct evidence against camp guards was difficult to produce.
Demjanjuk’s conviction “was a game-changer because it allows for the prosecution of people who would otherwise not have been prosecuted,” said Efraim Zuroff, the Chief Nazi Hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organisation.
As a result of the Demjanjuk precedent, guards who worked at death camps could be charged with abetting, contributing to, or being complicit in the killings that took place there.
“We don’t know if Lipschis personally murdered anyone, but he served at Auschwitz for almost the entire time that the camp was in existence,” Zuroff said.
Lipschis had lived in Chicago since the 1950s, but was deported from the United States in 1983 for falsifying his past as a Nazi. Of the 50 former guards being sought for investigation in Germany, Lipschis was the only one to also appear on the.
The number one on the SWC’s 2013 Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals list is Laszlo Csatary, now 98. While serving as a senior police officer in Hungarian-occupied Slovakia in 1944, he organised the deportation of approximately 15,700 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp. In 1948, a Czechoslovak court convicted and sentenced him to death in absentia.
Csatary eluded authorities, fleeing Europe for Canada. He was spotted in 2011 in Budapest, Hungary and put under house arrest for prosecution.
Second on the SWC list is Gerhard Sommer, who was convicted in absentia in 2005 by a military court in La Spezia, Italy, for participating in the 1944 massacre of 560 civilians. No criminal charges have as yet been brought in Germany, where Sommer now lives in a nursing home. “We’re not that optimistic” about his being brought to justice, said Zuroff, “because he has been under investigation for several years, but so far there has been no progress in prosecuting him.”
Vladimir Katriuk is third on the SWC list, which describes him as having served as a platoon commander of a Ukranian battalion that “carried out the murder of Jews and innocent civilians in various places in Belarus.”
Like Csatary, Katriuk managed to immigrate to Canada after the war. He gained citizenship and was reported to have been a beekeeper and a prominent member of his local Orthodox Church. Although his citizenship was revoked in 1999 after his Nazi collaboration became known, the decision was overturned in 2007. Since then, however, new evidence has come to light about Katriuk’s role in the mass murder of the residents of Khatyn, Belarus.
These examples resound a loud message globally that justice cannot be hidden forever—not even for war crimes committed decades in the past, and not even someone reaches at the age of 93.
Even though most of the WWII accused are now in their late 80s or 90s, their age is no reason to stop seeking justice, said Zuroff, who is the author of Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice. “Don’t look at these people and say they look frail and weak. Think of someone who at the height of his powers devoted his energies to murdering men, women, and children.”
He added: “The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Old age should not provide protection. The fact that they have reached an elderly age does not turn them into righteous gentiles.”
Holocaust historian and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt agrees that there is no time limit. “Just because they did this a long time ago doesn’t mean they should be exonerated,” said Lipstadt, author of such books as Denying the Holocaust and The Eichmann Trial. “If someone raped children decades ago and we found that person now in his 80s or 90s, you would still say they should be tried. The victims deserve to have the perpetrators brought to justice. And society needs to know that you don’t get a free pass.”