Canadian Jewish News | Jun. 10, 2004 | Janice Arnold

Nearly 1,500 WWII war crimes files closed, inactive

As of December, 2003, the Department of Justice had declared 1,494 files on suspected World War II-era war criminals either inactive or closed, according to the government's recently released Sixth Annual Report on Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes.

Seventy files were still under active investigation and 124 allegations had undergone initial checks. Of the active files, four involved ongoing proceedings at the Federal Court of Canada or the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The rest are described as in the "development stage."

Of the 373 inactive files, the greatest number -- 227 -- were listed as such because the suspects were accused of "membership only." Denise Rudnicki, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, explained that "membership only" means the person was a member of a group that "may or may not have been involved in [war] crimes. If it's a murder squad, it's clear, but other groups are a little grey as to whether they committed atrocities."

Other explanations for inactive files included insufficient evidence and suspects not being in Canada. Another 175 were inactive because "routine" investigative checks came up negative.

Of the 930 files that are closed, 508 were closed prior to 1998 (when the War Crimes Program was created), 408 were because the suspect was deceased, and another 14 were dropped because the suspect was born before 1906.

The report was made public last month by Cotler and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness.

It highlights the activities of the War Crimes Program from April 1, 2002, to March 31, 2003, in pursuing war criminals and those who have committed crimes against humanity, both during World War II and after the war up to the current day.

All told, the Canadian government has opened and examined 1,684 files on alleged World War II criminals.

Since 1995, 19 revocation and deportation cases have been initiated, the report states. As of March 31, 2003, the government had received favourable decisions in six denaturalization cases before the Federal Court, namely, those against Wasily Bogutin, Vladimir Katriuk, Serge Kisluk, Helmut Oberlander, Wasyl Odynsky and Michael Baumgartner.

In two other cases, those of Ladislaus Csatary and Mamertas Maciukas, the respondents did not contest the cases. Their citizenship was revoked and they left the country voluntarily.

Three defendants -- Peteris Vitols, Johann Dueck and Eduards Podins -- have been successful in three cases before the Federal Court.

Six suspects died during the course of legal proceedings: Antanas Kenstavicius, Erichs Tobiass, Josef Nemsila, Ludwig Nebel, Bogutin and Kisluk.

On March 31, 2003, the department was awaiting one judicial review decision from the Federal Court, that in the case against Oberlander. Deportation proceedings were also pending against Oberlander before the IRB's adjudication division.

Two cases were concluded and awaiting a decision from the Federal Court, those against Walter Obodzinsky and Jacob Fast. Proceedings are ongoing in the denaturalization case against Michael Seifert. Extradition proceedings have also been launched against Seifert.

Obodzinsky was notified in August 1999 that his citizenship was to be revoked. He then went to the Federal Court for adjudication under the Citizenship Act. A statement of claim was issued against and served on Obodzinsky on Feb. 1, 2000. The Federal Court's trial division and the Federal Court of Appeal both dismissed his request to stay the case on medical grounds and the Supreme Court denied him leave to appeal on this issue.

In the case of Fast, he was served with a notice of intent to revoke his citizenship on Sept. 30, 1999. Fast requested that the matter be referred to the Federal Court, also citing the Citizenship Act. A statement of claim was served on Fast's counsel on March 7, 2000.

The report notes that the War Crimes Program continues to deal with allegations that could lead to criminal prosecution or to the revocation of citizenship and eventual removal, "notwithstanding the passage of time that renders this work more and more difficult."

In releasing the report, Cotler said: "Canada has a reputation worldwide for being a leader in ensuring that there is no safe haven for individuals involved in crimes against humanity or war crimes, regardless of when or where these crimes took place.

"We want to take a leadership role in engaging the international community to work even more closely with us to bring the perpetrators to justice."

The War Crimes Program is a joint initiative of the departments of justice and citizenship and immigration, and the RCMP.

Eric Vernon, director of government relations for Canadian Jewish Congress, said the number of active cases is "disappointingly low, but we do acknowledge that in the last few years more cases have been brought forward by the government."

He said that "there had been quite a lull in the middle history" of the revamped war crimes program, which was established in 1995 after the government switched to pursuing suspects under civil, rather than criminal, law.

He noted that since the period covered by the report, two new cases have been launched, those against Jura Skomatchuk and Josef Furman, which he said CJC commends.

"We continue to urge the government to bring forward [World War II-era] cases while there is still time. It is urgent. At the same time, we acknowledge the importance of the pursuit of modern war criminals." Vernon said CJC would like to see the government consider using criminal proceedings again, which was made possible by legislation enacted in 2001 in the wake of the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

"So far, we have not seen that take place. Although the evidentiary threshold is higher, we'd like to know the option is being looked at."