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Italy pardon plan for Nazi sparks debate
Updated: 2004-03-05 14:34

To his supporters, Erich Priebke is an old man who paid for his mistakes and should be pardoned. To his foes, the 90-year-old convicted Nazi war criminal, who is serving a life sentence under house arrest, should never be free again.

Both sides plan demonstrations Saturday to make their cases, sparking anew a debate over Priebke's fate that has involved Rome's mayor, Jewish organizations and Italian lawmakers.

"The people in Italy should show compassion for Priebke's victims, their widows and orphans by insisting that Erich Priebke never again be in a position to walk the streets of Rome as a free man," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Priebke, a former SS captain, was convicted in 1997 for a wartime massacre in which 335 civilians were killed. He says he was only following orders.

"This execution was a tragedy for us," Priebke said in an interview published Thursday in the right-wing daily Il Giornale. "I don't feel the responsibility to repent for something I didn't want to do. I was against it. I had to obey like every soldier must do."

A request seeking Priebke's pardon has been pending before the Defense Ministry since 1999. But the campaign gained new momentum recently when Italy considered granting a pardon to another long-time prisoner in an unrelated case, said Paolo Giachini, an activist promoting the campaign and at whose house Priebke is serving the sentence.

Priebke's supporters insist the German national should be pardoned because of his age and because his crimes date to 60 years ago. They say his human rights are being violated.

"Priebke's detention is against the Italian constitution and all principles of civilization," Giachini said in an interview Thursday, referring to a constitutional provision saying penalties cannot be contrary to a sense of humanity.

The March 24, 1944, massacre was ordered in retaliation for a bomb attack by Italian resistance fighters that killed 33 German soldiers. The victims, who included old men, young boys, Jews and Roman Catholic priests, were led one-by-one into the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome and shot to death.

Priebke has admitted to shooting two people and helping round up the victims. He has said he would have faced a firing squad had he refused.

A military appeals court upheld Priebke's conviction in 1998 and stiffened his sentence to life imprisonment.

Jewish community representatives, leftist lawmakers and resistance fighters' associations have strongly protested the pardon request.

"It's incredible that Priebke should seek mercy, he who had no mercy for those he killed," Riccardo Pacifici, a spokesman for the Rome Jewish Community, said in an interview Thursday.

"There's no thirst for revenge, no hate," Pacifici said. "But a just society requires that unrepentant, convicted assassins end their days in detention."

Saturday's demonstration of Priebke's supporters is expected to draw a small group of people, including a conservative lawmaker who is Priebke's former lawyer and another who circulated a video praising the ex-SS captain in parliament last year. Also expected is Priebke's wife, who comes from Argentina, where Priebke lived before his 1994 extradition to Italy.

The planned demonstration has sparked angry reactions. Mayor Walter Veltroni has called it "inappropriate" and has denied organizers permission to set up a stage, speakers or any other structure in the piazza where it will be held. Two counterdemonstrations have been hastily planned, one in the very same piazza as the pro-Priebke one, just two hours earlier.

In Italy, demonstrations can only be banned if they pose a risk to public order. Government officials said no such risk exists, but a final decision on whether to allow the demonstrations will be made Friday.

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