A former Nazi commander was acquitted of murder in three massacres in Slovakia after a court said Monday there was no reliable evidence he was involved in the killings.
Ladislav Niznansky, 88, sat stone-faced as his acquittal on 164 counts of murder was announced in the Munich state court.
The charges against him were filed in connection with the slaughter of 146 men, women and children in two Slovak villages and the later killing of 18 Jewish civilians after a failed uprising against Slovakia’s Nazi puppet government.
Presiding Judge Manfred Goetzl cited contradictory evidence from witnesses as a reason for the acquittal, noting that some withdrew testimony given when Niznansky was convicted in absentia by communist Czechoslovakia in 1962.
Prosecutors leaned heavily on evidence from that trial, but several witnesses sought out by the court this time either contradicted or withdrew their previous testimony.
The court said evidence from the 1962 trial was suspect because Communist-era documents show officials had planned it “from start to finish.”
‘A judgment can't be based on this’
“A judgment can’t be based on this,” Goetzl said.
The Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center called Monday’s verdict “unpleasant” and urged German authorities to keep pursuing Nazi suspects.
Kurt Schrimm, head of the special German prosecutors’ office that has hunted Nazis since 1958, said his work would go on “even if the chances of success diminish year by year.”
He said about 20 investigations were under way, including at least three in Germany.
Prosecutors said Niznansky was an active commander and sought the maximum sentence of life in prison. Prosecutor Konstantin Kuchenbauer promised an appeal.
Niznansky, a former Slovak army captain who at first supported the 1944 revolt, changed sides after he was captured and took charge of the Slovak section of a Nazi unit, code-named Edelweiss, that hunted resistance fighters and Jews.
He was convicted of the massacres and sentenced to death in absentia by Czechoslovakia in 1962.
By then, he had moved to Germany, where he retired. He became a German citizen in 1996.
Niznansky was arrested in Germany in January 2004 after a Slovak request, but the court released him from police custody, citing contradictory testimony from a key witness in the old trial.
Defendant acknowledged participation in raid
Niznansky acknowledges fighting partisans after being forced to join the Nazi unit to avoid incarceration in a concentration camp, and he admits participating in the bloody operation against two villages in central Slovakia on Jan. 21, 1945, as punishment for local support of Soviet-backed rebels.
The defense said Niznansky and his men were in nearby hills but not in the villages when German troops and allied Slovak irregulars carried out the executions. The court said testimony from survivors showed that the Edelweiss unit was not present.
Judge Goetzl said it was unclear who carried out the third massacre — of 18 Jewish civilians discovered hiding in underground bunkers at Ksina on Feb. 7, 1945.
Niznansky appeared exhausted as the judge explained the verdict and awarded him compensation for the months he spent in custody, bowing his head and closing his eyes.
“I always hoped it would come to a fair verdict,” Niznansky told reporters afterward. “I’m relieved after these two years of mental torture.”
Although it was not at issue in the trial, Niznansky said during the proceedings he was present during the 1944 capture in Slovakia of U.S. agents and an American war correspondent, who later were executed.
The captives included members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and Associated Press correspondent Joseph Morton, 33, the only war correspondent known to have been executed during World War II.
Niznansky said he played a subordinate role during the capture, which he said was led by a Nazi major.