In a Munich courtroom on Monday Ladislav Niznansky, an 88-year-old Slovak accused of Nazi war crimes, was acquitted of involvement in the massacres of Slovaks and Jews in 1945.
The prosecution evidence was deemed to circumstantial to convict Niznansky
A Munich court has acquitted Ladislav Niznansky, an 88-year-old Slovak accused of Nazi war crimes.
Ruling that there was insufficient evidence to convict Niznansky of the crimes of which he was accused at the end of the 15-month trial, the court released him and ordered that the former Slovak army captain be paid compensation for time spent in custody.
The prosecution had been looking for a life sentence for Niznansky for his alleged role in massacres of Slovak civilians at the end of World War II.
As it became increasingly clear that the days of the Third Reich were numbered, many Slovaks rose up against their country's Nazi puppet government in an attempt to precipitate its downfall. The uprising was brutally crushed.
Rebel-turned-Nazi commander accused of murder
Originally on the side of his own people, Niznansky was captured by the Nazis and then turned against his fellow Slovaks to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. He then took charge of the Slovak section of a Nazi unit code-named Edelweiss that hunted resistance fighters and Jews.
According to the prosecution, on one occasion during the uprising, Edelweiss, working with a unit of the elite SS and another unit that included German soldiers and ethnic German irregulars, surrounded the village of Klak. Without determining whether resistance fighters were in the village at the time, the soldiers massacred the inhabitants, including women and small children.
The Edelweiss and SS troops utterly destroyed the villages after the massacre
"It is the opinion of the public prosecutor's office that the accused gave a liquidation order at Klak and Ostry Grun," prosecutor Konstantin Kuchenbacher told the court in his summing up. "He had arranged for these places to be surrounded so that nobody could escape. The massacre was then carried out as a communal action, carried out by a number of different troop units."
Niznansky stands accused of 164 counts of murder for the massacre at Klak and at Ostry Grun, a neighboring village, on Jan. 21, 1945 and that he selected an execution squad on Feb. 7, 1945 to murder 18 Jews who had been discovered hiding in the village of Ksina.
Defendant denies claims as "unimaginable"
Niznansky maintains that a Slovak would never have been in a position to give the orders at the villages
He had vehemently refuted the accusations, denying ever being second-in-command of the Edelweiss unit and that his only role was as translator for the unit's leader, a German major. "It is unimaginable that that a Slovak officer could have had a command role over a German unit," the defendant told The Associated Press outside the courtroom last week.
He did, however, admit to being present during the capture of US agents and Associated Press correspondent Joseph Morton, in Slovakia in 1944. The agents and Morton, the only war correspondent known to have been executed by any side during World War II, were later killed.
After the war, Niznansky was sent to Vienna to spy for the communist authorities and then became a double-agent for US intelligence, according to defense attorney Steffen Ufer.
Niznansky sentenced to death in absentia in 1962
Despite his claims of innocence in the massacres of 1945, Niznansky already has a conviction against him for the crimes for which he stands trial in Germany. He was convicted of the shootings and other killings by a court in what was communist Czechoslovakia in 1962. He was sentenced to death in absentia.
Niznansky was tried and convicted in absentia in 1963
At the time, Niznansky was living in Germany where he worked for US-financed Radio Free Europe, which broadcast Western programming to the Soviet bloc. He became a German citizen in 1996.
Five years later, after receiving an official request from the Slovak authorities, the German investigation into Niznansky's involvement began. German judges traveled to Slovakia and Austria to interview surviving witnesses.
He was taken into custody but released by the court in October 2004, after testimony from a former Edelweiss member -- whose evidence helped secure his 1962 conviction -- was ruled as contradictory.
Contradictory 1962 testimony could prove crucial
Despite using some of the statements from the 1962 trial in his case, prosecuting counsel Kuchenbauer later admitted that several elderly witnesses invited to Munich had denied their 1962 testimony. He added that there was no firm evidence that Niznansky himself shot any of the victims in Klak, Ostry Grun or Ksina.
Defense attorney Ufer had demanded Niznansky be acquitted and asked for compensation for the time he has spent in prison, saying there was no evidence showing his guilt. The defense claimed that without the evidence from the 1962 trial, the credibility of which is in doubt, the prosecution had nothing.
"The prosecution has built its entire case on the 1962 trial in Czechoslovakia and that was a communist show trial," he said. "The investigators were all members of the state security apparatus." Ufer also said that at a follow-up trial of other Edelweiss members in Czechoslovakia in 1963, "none of the defendants said that Niznansky gave any liquidation orders."