Former SS officer convicted in World War II massacre in Italy; sentenced to seven years

Friday, July 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) _ Former SS Maj. Friedrich Engel was convicted Friday of 59 counts of murder for a World War II massacre of Italian prisoners and sentenced to seven years in prison, ending one of Germany's last trials for Nazi crimes.

Engel, 93, had denied the charges and blamed Nazi naval officers for the May 1944 reprisal shootings at a mountain pass outside Genoa, Italy.

Prosecutors sought life in prison but the Hamburg state court issued a lesser sentence, given ``exceptional circumstances'' created by the long interval since the crimes and a spotty witness testimony.

Prosecutors described the killings as particularly cruel, saying the Italian captives were bound in pairs and forced to walk onto a plank over an open grave where they were shot.

``It was a cruel and illegal killing, which Engel helped bring about,'' said presiding Judge Rolf Seedorf.

The shootings at the Turchino Pass were in retaliation for an attack on a movie theater that killed five German soldiers during Italian partisans' fight to drive Nazi occupying forces out of the country.

At the time, Engel headed the Genoa branch of an SS intelligence unit charged with tracking enemies of the Nazis. He has testified he approved the list of prisoners from Genoa's Marassi jail to be shot and was present during the killings, but did not order the massacre or shoot anyone.

One witness, however, told the court that Engel ``clearly had the job of supervising the killings'' and at one point ordered a lieutenant to shoot a captive who was not yet dead. Prosecutor Jochen Kuhlmann argued that the SS would not have allowed such an operation to be handed off to anyone else.

Engel's lawyer had pleaded for acquittal, pointing out that the Hamburg state court last week upheld arguments that such reprisal killings were not explicitly outlawed under rules of war in 1944. The lawyer, Udo Kneip, argued that the prisoners died an ``honorable death.''

A neatly dressed man who walks with the help of cane, Engel appeared attentive and unmoved during the trial that began May 7.

In an interview with The Associated Press, he argued that the partisans provoked the Nazis with ``treacherous, underhanded attacks'' and cited an alleged order from Adolf Hitler to retaliate against attacks on German forces in Italy.

Hamburg authorities investigated Engel in 1969 for his role in Nazi executions in Italy. The case was dropped the same year for reasons that aren't known because the files were lost.

But an Italian military court convicted him in absentia in 1999 and sentenced him to life for war crimes connected to a total of 246 deaths.

Italy pressed for Engel's trial after a German television documentary last year drew attention to his case and the fact that he had been living freely for decades in Hamburg.