VILNIUS - Lithuanian prosecutors have sparked international controversy by asking Israel to deliver a notice of suspicion to Yitzhak Arad, a prominent historian and member of the International Commission for Evaluation of Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regime Crimes in Lithuania. In a surprising twist, Lithuania suspects the 81-year-old Israeli citizen of himself committing crimes against humanity during and after World War II.
The Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Department has officially confirmed that in June it sent a request to Israel's Justice Ministry to notify Arad that he is suspected of murdering local civilians, prisoners of war and members of guerrilla movements while serving in the NKVD, the Soviet Union's predecessor to the KGB. The notice amounts to a request to appear for questioning, and is not a formal accusation.
Lithuania's chief prosecutor said he won't request that the court arrest Arad if he returns to Lithuania and testifies.
"He has the possibility to answer questions voluntarily, and the chief prosecutor isn't thinking of imposing any constraints on him yet," Prosecutor General's Office spokeswoman Aurelija Juodyte told The Baltic Times.
"Mr. Arad is a respectable person, and hopefully this status will continue," she said. "We [at the Prosecutor General's Depart-ment] aren't imposing an arrest."
The suspicions are based on quotes from Arad's autobiography, testimony he gave during the trials of Nazi war criminals, and documents from the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center. A pre-trial investigation into the case began in May 2006.
Arad is best known for serving as the director of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Authority, for 21 years. Later Yad Vashem appointed him a member of the International Commission for Evaluation of Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regime Crimes in Lithuania. BNS reports that after learning the suspicions Lithuania has towards him, Arad suspended his membership in the commission.
The online version of Israel's Haaretz daily reported Arad has rejected the allegations.
He said he has been targeted by right-wing leaders in Lithuania for his recent statements on the issue of Lithuanians killing local Jews during WWII. He told Haaretz the affidavits he gave in the trials of Lithuanian Gestapo officials Aleksandras Lileikis and Algimantas Dailide angered political elements in Vilnius.
In reaction to Arad's allegations, Yad Vashem sent a letter to Emanuelis Zingeris, a member of Lithuania's Parliament and the chairman of the International Commission, saying it would suspend participation in the Lithuanian institution until the investigation is resolved.
"Clearly, the process in question is a blatant expression of willful, destructive historical revisionism which all truthful and honest individuals and bodies, particularly Yad Vashem, must protest vehemently," Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev wrote in the Sept. 5 letter.
Head of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Israel, Ephraim Zuroff, said it's the first time that a foreign government has investigated an Israeli citizen for alleged crimes in the Soviet regime.
"The Lithuanian committee was born in sin," said Zuroff. "They have decided to make a moral equivalency that is simply impossible to accept."
The allegations have put the International Commission itself in the spotlight.
Its executive director, Ronaldas Racinskas, told The Baltic Times he hopes the allegations won't destroy their partnership with Yad Vashem.
"We hope this incident doesn't make a big influence on practical cooperation in the process of establishing historical truths," said Racinskas. "I don't see why this cooperation or participation should be stopped," said Racinskas.
"We need some time to find out what the situation really is. I hope that we'll solve this situation in a diplomatic way, and we will continue to cooperate in the future," he added.
However, professor Don Levin of Israel's Hebrew University, an expert on the history of the Baltic states, has criticized the commission, saying it "was not established to discover the truth, rather to ease Lithuania's acceptance to the European Union."
Arad is a retired Israeli Defense Force brigadier general. After Germany invaded Lithuania in 1941, he joined a Soviet partisan platoon. He later served in the NKVD. After the war, he fled to Israel and joined the army. He has also served as an expert witness for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations.
Some 90 percent of Lithuania's pre-war Jewish population of 220,000 perished during the Nazi occupation in World War II.