Hamburg, Germany One of Germany's last trials for Nazi crimes ended Friday when a 93-year-old former SS officer was convicted of 59 counts of murder stemming from a 1944 massacre of Italian resistance fighters. But the court said Friedrich Engel was too old to serve his seven-year sentence.
Engel's conviction was welcomed by a former resistance fighter and a Jewish human rights organization, though there were tinges of disbelief that Engel was spared prison time.
The conviction, which drew courtroom jeers from a few aging Engel supporters, followed earlier, failed attempts to prosecute him for the May 19, 1944, shootings on a mountain pass above Genoa, Italy.
Judge Rolf Seedorf said the evidence showed that Engel, known in Italy as the "Butcher of Genoa," played a leading role in organizing the shootings in reprisal for an attack on a movie theater in the port city that killed five German navy men four days earlier.
"It was a cruel and illegal killing, which Engel helped bring about," Seedorf said.
The Italian captives were bound in groups, marched to the side of a pit and then shot. Most must have seen and heard their compatriots being killed the "inhuman" aspect of the shooting that justified the murder charges, Seedorf said.
The judge also noted testimony from Walter Emig, a former navy man who said he witnessed the Turchino Pass shooting and Engel "clearly had the job of supervising."
"You were the highest-ranking person at the site," Seedorf said. "So one must conclude that events unfolded the way you had imagined, and, I might add, to your satisfaction."
In Italy, former resistance fighter Raimondo Ricci, an inmate at the Marassi jail when the prisoners were taken away to be shot, was satisfied that justice was served.
"My first reaction was to regard such a sentence almost as a mockery," Ricci, 81, said. "But I have been able to ascertain that the result of this seven-year sentence doesn't reduce Engel's responsibility."
Engel denied ordering the shooting, saying the navy led the operation, guarded the prisoners and shot them.
The former SS officer said he worked after the war as a lumber salesman before retiring in the 1970s. He has not been jailed and returned home after twice-weekly court sessions began May 7.
"Engel had the luck to live for decades in absolute freedom, luck that such a merciless human being like him did not deserve," Ricci said.
Olivia Bellotti, a lawyer representing victims' families at the trial, said, "It is important that there was a conviction, that someone was held responsible."
The trial was one of Germany's last for Nazi war crimes, though a special prosecutor's office chasing Nazis since 1958 is investigating about 20 cases.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said Germany had a continuing duty to bring surviving Nazi crime suspects to justice.
An Italian military court convicted Engel in absentia in 1999 and sentenced him to life imprisonment for war crimes connected to 246 deaths. That trial provided evidence used in this trial.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, believes there are other Nazi suspects in Australia and Lithuania who participated in death squads.