The U.S. Justice Department has asked Israel to consider accepting and prosecuting several alleged Nazi war criminals who entered the United States illegally and face deportation.
Neal Sher, the acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, met here today with Israeli State Attorney Yonah Blatman, the country's chief prosecutor, to discuss the Nazi cases. They include that of Romanian Orthodox Archbishop Valerian Trifa, who was ordered deported last fall by a U.S. court.
Israeli officials said the discussions are to continue next week at a meeting between U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark M. Richard and Israeli Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir.
Israeli officials would not disclose the number of cases involved in the Justice Department approach to Israel. There were reports here today that they could total as many as 40, but officials in Washington said only a few are involved so far.
Sources at the Justice Department in Washington said it never has deported a Nazi to Israel. The procedure is fairly new because the Office of Special Investigations, which investigates Nazi war criminals living in the United States, was not created until 1979 and expulsion orders are subject to a lengthy appeals process.
The office is involved in litigation against 26 alleged Nazis and investigations of more than 250 others.
Yitzhak Feinberg, the spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry, said a decision to prosecute the alleged Nazi war criminals will be difficult for the Israelis, and he would not estimate how long it will take.
Feinberg also said Israel will be reluctant to agree to deportation of the alleged war criminals for prosecution here unless there is strong evidence in each case, for fear the accused could be acquitted, entitling them to live in freedom in the Jewish state.
Only one specific case involved in today's meeting between Sher and Blatman has become public. It involves Trifa, who was ordered deported in October by a court in Detroit for lying to immigration officials when he entered the United States in 1950.
Trifa has admitted to U.S. authorities that he concealed his pro-Nazi activity, including editing the newspaper of Romania's Iron Guard, an organization believed responsible for the murders of hundreds of Jews and Christians during World War II.
The U.S. government charged that Trifa, through his speeches, set off four days of riots in Bucharest that resulted in the deaths of 236 Jews and Christians. Trifa denied inciting the riots.
Sources said the Israelis were not strongly interested in Trifa but showed more interest in another unidentified suspected war criminal on the Justice Department list.
Charles Gittens of the Office of Special Investigations said in Washington that so far, only three former Nazis have been ordered deported, including Trifa. One of the three, Hans Lipschis, accused of serving with the Nazi SS in Auschwitz concentration camp and taking part in killings there, left the country earlier this month to avoid deportation and reportedly is in West Germany.
Lipschis had agreed in December to leave the United States within four months, or face trial on an allegation that he lied on his immigration application by concealing his service in an SS Death's Head battalion at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Lipschis had declined to challenge the accusation.
Andrija Artukovic, a cabinet-level officer in the Nazi puppet government of Croatia, was ordered deported in 1953, but still lives near Los Angeles. He was allowed to stay because at the time it was feared he would be persecuted in Yugoslovia. The Justice Department has renewed its deportation efforts against Artukovic, and the case is pending in court.
When Trifa agreed to deportation, he asked to be sent to Switzerland, but the Swiss refused to accept him. Former Nazis like Trifa are allowed to make one choice of a country to which they wish to travel. If that country refuses, it is up to the U.S. government to find a country to take them.
Justice asked Italy to take Trifa, since he came here from Italy, but that government refused. Then Justice approached West Germany, since Trifa lived in Germany during World War II, but it also refused.
A Justice Department source said the United States is now negotiating with Romania as well as Israel and that it is likely that Trifa would face trial in either of those countries if he is accepted. A Romanian Embassy spokesman in Washington would not comment on the reported negotiations.
The Justice Department seeks to deport the alleged war criminals but must first find another country willing to accept them. Israel appeared to be a possibility because of an unusual 1950 law that empowers the country to prosecute people who "carried out crimes against the Jewish people in Germany or elsewhere under Nazi rule" regardless of their current citizenship or place of residence.
However, in the more than 30 years the law has existed, only one former Nazi has been brought to trial under its provisions. He was Adolf Eichmann, a notorious war criminal who was hunted for years before he was tracked down in Argentina, kidnaped by Israeli agents and brought to trial here in 1961.
Eichmann was executed in 1962 after being convicted of crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity.
Compared to Eichmann, who organized the transportation of Jews from all over Europe to the Nazi death camps, Trifa and presumably most others on the Justice Department list were relatively minor figures in the Nazi holocaust. Their relative obscurity plus the passage of another 20 years since the Eichmann trial is likely to complicate the task of gathering evidence against the alleged war criminals.
"It's not simple," Feinberg said. He said the "question of evidence" was of key importance, and he called the issue of accepting a number of alleged Nazi war criminals for prosecution here "very delicate."
Feinberg refused to say whether the Justice Department has offered to make available the evidence of war crimes it has gathered in the deportation cases, but this presumably would be part of any agreement between the United States and Israel.
Feinberg said these questions are under discussion at the Justice Ministry and will continue to be studied before a decision is made.
Today's meeting between Sher and Blatman was also attended by Israeli police and Foreign Ministry officials and by Yehuda Reshef, the country's northern district prosecutor who was a member of the Israeli team that prosecuted Eichmann and who is an expert on the holocaust.