Cursory Nazi probe rejected

  • 2002-07-25
  • Sara Toth

The U.S. Embassy and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have rejected the results of a 12-day investigation of suspected Nazi collaborators by the Estonian Security Police because findings contradict historians' earlier assertion that its Estonian battalion murdered Jews in Belarus.

The security police concluded that the 16 men on a Wiesenthal Center list of alleged Nazi war criminals belonged to the 36th Estonian Police Battalion but did not participate in the slaughter of 2,500 Jews at Novogrudok, Belarus, on Aug. 7, 1942.

"The security police has no information of the 36th Estonian Police Battalion having taken part in the execution of Jews in Novogrudok or having committed any other crimes against humanity," said security police spokesman Olar Valatin.

The battalion was awarded the Class Two Iron Cross by the Germans for bravery in the battle at Stalingrad in November and December 1942, Valatin said, not for killing Jews, as the Wiesenthal Center claimed.

But according to the Estonia International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, a group of historians founded in 1998 by former President Lennart Meri to research crimes during the Soviet and German occupations, the 36th Estonian Police Battalion did kill Jews at Novogrudok.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, demanded a new investigation July 23.

"I'm literally in shock," said Zuroff, who recently visited Estonia to announce a reward of $10,000 for anyone who turns in information leading to the arrest of the men on the list. "This is an absolute contradiction, and therefore I think there is something very amiss here in this investigation."

But Meelis Ratassepp, deputy director of the Security Police Board, said investigators were aware of the historical commission's findings but needed to find their own evidence.

"We appreciate the work of the commission and their evaluation about events that happened during World War II," Ratassepp said. "But a historical commission is one thing and a criminal investigation is another."

Zuroff also said he was concerned that the investigation lasted less than two weeks.

"This is an amazingly quick result that raises serious questions about the depth of the investigation," he said.

Ratassepp said the investigation took only 12 days because it was not "concerned with proving the guilt of individual people but in finding out if the act had been committed."

He also said that nine of the 16 men died during or immediately following World War II, and Estonia does not have any information about the whereabouts of the seven others on the list.

Thomas Hodges, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, said he shared Zuroff's concerns about the quality of the probe because of the contradiction with earlier findings.

The U.S. government, he said, "remains ready to work with the Estonian government on the investigation and prosecution of war criminals."

Earlier this week, Estonian officials also said they had no evidence that could convict Estonian-born Venezuelan businessman Harri Mannil of killing Jews during the Nazi occupation.

The on-going investigation confirmed that Mannil, 82, served in the Estonian security force for six months during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation but could not prove the Wiesenthal Center's allegations that he took part in killings.

The Estonian investigation found that Mannil interrogated people who were later killed but did not issue execution orders, prosecutors said.

"It's unlikely that the Estonian judicial system could convict Mannil of a crime against humanity, as under the effective criminal code this article stipulates intent on the part of the defendant," Tallinn prosecutor Dilaila Nahkur told the Baltic News Service.

But the case has not been closed, said Henno Kuurmann, superintendent of the Security Police Board. Last year Estonia reopened a criminal investigation into the wartime activities of Mannil at the insistence of the Wiesenthal Center.

Zuroff said there was evidence that could lead to Mannil's prosecution.

"Mannil arrested people and interrogated them," Zuroff said. "It's fairly clear he knew a very harsh fate awaited them."

The Nazis killed between 950 and 1,000 Estonian Jews and unknown number of Jews deported to Estonia from other countries.

As authorities were researching the 16 men wanted by the Wiesenthal Center, an Estonian man said he would reward $20,000 to anyone with information on Jewish officers of the KGB involved in repression against Estonians.

"For my part, I'm offering $20,000 to everyone whose honest confession brings about a fair court's verdict of guilty criminals of the Jewish nationality who while serving in Soviet repressive bodies in the 1940s committed genocidal crimes in Estonia," Heiki Kortsparn, of Kambja in eastern Estonia, wrote in a letter to the weekly Kesknadal.

The Estonian Security Police is not investigating any people in connection with Kortsparn's offer, and the government has not advertised the offer, officials said.