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Ex-German officer convicted for role in WWII massacre

August 11, 2009

MUNICH (AP) -- Gino Massetti was only 15 when Nazi troops rounded him up with 10 other Italian civilians and forced them into a barn before blowing it up -- a ruthless massacre carried out in revenge after partisans killed two soldiers.

Though Massetti, the lone survivor of the slaughter, couldn't identify who ordered it, former Wehrmacht Lt. Josef Scheungraber was convicted Tuesday of murder based on circumstantial evidence that put him at the scene as the ranking officer, and sentenced to life in prison.

Scheungraber's lawyer, Klaus Goebel, said he would appeal what he called "a scandalous verdict." The 90-year-old Scheungraber declined to comment.

Though witnesses in such cases are rare and memories have faded over more than six decades since the war, the case underscores that it is still possible to win a conviction against Nazi war criminals, experts say.

"Even old age cannot protect one from prosecution," Norbert Frei, a historian at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, told Bayerischen Rundfunk radio.

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An American attorney who served as the U.S. Justice Department's lead lawyer in the 2002 case against John Demjanjuk said the verdict has important implications for the upcoming German trial of the retired autoworker accused of being a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.

"It's going to be a similar body of evidence that is used against Demjanjuk, and the fact that you have a conviction in this case is a very promising sign for the Demjanjuk prosecution," Jonathan Drimmer, now in private practice, said in a telephone interview from his Washington office.

The 89-year-old Demjanjuk, charged as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 people at Sobibor, was deported from the U.S. in May after losing all appeals there. The same court where Scheungraber was convicted had not yet decided when Demjanjuk might go on trial.

The Demanjuk case is another where there are no known direct living witnesses, and prosecutors are relying on historical documents in their attempt to prove he served as a guard at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In its ruling, the Munich state court ruled that Scheungraber's men exacted vengeance against the population of Falzano di Cortona, near the Tuscan town of Arezzo, after local partisans killed two German soldiers in June 1944.

"It was about revenge," said Presiding Judge Manfred Goetzl.

Scheungraber, who was a 25-year-old in command of a company of engineers at the time, maintained he was not in Falzano di Cortona when the killings happened, but was overseeing reconstruction of a nearby bridge. But the court said that evidence presented over the last 11 months showed that Scheungraber "was the only officer present to give the order."

The court said he had ordered two of his men on a mission, and then sent his driver to look for them when they hadn't returned. When they were found dead, Scheungraber organized their burial -- and pictures showing him at it were among evidence presented during the trial.

"The accused, who felt personally responsible for the deaths of two of his comrades, wanted to counter the fear, the hate and the helplessness of the soldiers, who expected protective measures on one hand, and revenge on the other," the court said in its ruling.

Scheungraber drew several deep breaths after his conviction was announced and listened to the judge's explanation with his eyes closed.

"The past caught up with the defendant," said prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz after the verdict was announced. "He will have to atone for his guilt."

Scheungraber was acquitted of charges that he also ordered soldiers to shoot to death three Italian men and one woman before the barn massacre, saying it could not be proven that Scheungraber gave that order.

During the trial, Massetti testified about the day he was rounded up with the others and herded into the barn.

"I heard a scream, and that was it then. They were all dead," Massetti testified in October.

Just before the barn was blown up, Massetti recalled, he saw a man he assumed was an officer arrive on a motorcycle and give what appeared to be an order to the others. Massetti could not describe the officer and didn't understand what he had said.

Massetti said it was down to luck that he survived. He was partly shielded from the blast after a heavy beam and a man fell on top of him.

A former work colleague also testified that he remembered Scheungraber saying to him once in the 1970s that he couldn't visit Italy because of what had happened during the war, which involved "shooting a dozen men and blowing them into the air."

The witness, Eugen Schuh, testified he did not remember Scheungraber saying he had given the order, but said the defendant told the story "as if it were his decision."

If there is reasonable doubt in a case, German courts are supposed to rule for the defendant. Stephen Klemp -- a Germany-based researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center -- said in past decades, even cases with seemingly stronger evidence tended to go in their favor.

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