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Europe

Italy Debates Pardoning German War Criminal

Supporters of a convicted German war criminal imprisoned in Italy are demanding his release for humanitarian reasons, but relatives of his victims demand that the 90-year-old continue to serve his life sentence.

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Erich Priebke in court in 1996.

Six years after an Italian court sentenced him to life in prison for his involvement in the 1944 execution of 335 civilians, Erich Priebke's making headlines again. Rome's streets have been plastered with posters supporting or opposing his release. A demonstration demanding his pardon scheduled for this weekend was cancelled as authorities feared clashes between both sides.

The demonstration had been supported by right-wing parliamentarian Antonio Serena and Carlo Taormina, a former deputy minister of the interior and a member of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

They demand that Priebke should be pardoned for humanitarian reasons -- a proposal that outraged Rome's Jewish community as well as relatives of the victims of the 1944 massacre, one of the bloodiest conducted by Germans in Italy during World War II.

"This man was a Nazi and remained a Nazi," one woman, whose father died in the massacre, told Bavaria's public broadcaster, BR. ""He still holds power, not as a human, but as a symbol that allows Italian nostalgics to feel strong again."

A humanitarian gesture?

That's what the new debate about Priebke's imprisonment is all about, said those opposing his pardon. Priebke's supporters don't care about a humanitarian gesture, they say. Instead, they are hoping to re-write the history of Fascism in Italy.

While two anti-Priebke demonstrations over the weekend were also cancelled for security reasons, relatives of the victims gathered at the so-called Adriatic Caves near Rome, the site of the massacre.

"Innocent people were killed here, some of them children aged 13 and 14," said Mario Gulace, who attended the memorial. "How can one forget this?"

Priebke never denied participating in the massacre, which at the time had been justified by the Germans as revenge for an attack by partisans during which 33 German soldiers were killed. He did, however, claim that he only acted on orders from his superiors. Priebke emigrated to Argentina after the war and was extradited to Italy in 1995.

Saying that Priebke's an old and sick man, his supporters now demand a pardon. Relatives of the victims reject this, pointing to the fact that Priebke was released from prison in 1999 and currently lives under house arrest in his lawyer's villa.

Johannes Rau in Italien

Rau (left) and Ciampi during a 2002 visit to a memorial for the victims of another massacre conducted by German soldiers in Marzabotto near Bologna.

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (photo, right), the man who could pardon Priebke, has also come out against such a move. Meeting with German President Johannes Rau in Rome over the weekend, Ciampi said the feelings of the relatives of the victims prevented a pardon for Priebke.



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