VILNIUS - The Lithuanian Supreme Court is presently debating a case that might transpire as one of the last chances to punish a Nazi war criminal in Europe.
Last March, a Lithuanian court convicted 85-year-old Algimantas Dailide of persecuting Jews and cooperating with the Nazis in World War II. However, the court did not sentence him to prison due to his age and the fact that he was no longer considered a menace to the public. The prosecution's appeal, in an attempt to imprison Dailide, reflects the Baltic state's manner of handling its Holocaust past.
The alleys of Vilnius (Vilna) Ghetto are filled with European tourists today. They stroll among the walls of the low houses, sit in bustling cafes and bask in the light of the northern summer sun. Apartment prices have soared here since Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 and the former Jewish quarter - located in the center of the old city - has since become a coveted area. The streets of the city that was dubbed "Lithuania's Jerusalem" in the middle of the 19th century - once the major center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe - are polished clean today and bright red geraniums bloom on the window sills.
The quarter looked very different 65 years ago. Then some 50,000 Jews were concentrated here - almost all that remained of the thriving, 220,000 strong Jewish community. The rest were murdered by the Nazis, with the help of thousands of Lithuanians, in forests and city outskirts during the summer and autumn months of 1941.
In the winter of that year, the surviving Jews were crowded here in appalling conditions, and led in large groups to the Ponar (Panieri Woods) less than 10 kilometers from Vilnius, where they were almost all murdered.
Among the Lithuanian police who assisted the Nazis in persecuting the Jews was a young policeman named Algimantas Dailide. According to the court verdict, he "took part in a systematic persecution of Jews as part of the German plan to exterminate them in occupied Lithuania."
One night in early October, the verdict states, Dailide helped to capture 10 Jews who tried to flee the ghetto and arrested them. Later he captured two additional Polish Jews and interrogated a third. "Although he denied the charges, his guilt is clearly proved," the verdict states.
It is not clear what happened to the Jews he arrested, but it may be assumed their lot was similar to that of more than 96 percent of Lithuania's Jews - extermination.
Dailide's conviction, which was welcomed in Israel and by organizations for commemorating the Holocaust, was another step in the process that began more than 10 years ago. After Lithuania's liberation from communism in 1991, the archive documents from the period of the Nazi occupation in 1941-1944 were gradually released.
Dailide had meanwhile escaped to America, married and worked in Cleveland as a real estate agent. His name was among those that appeared on some of the documents. Dailide was deported from the U.S. in 2004, following a legal struggle conducted against him by the American Department of Justice, which discovered that he had lied in his immigration forms and concealed his past.
Despite his conviction in court, the judges ruled that due to a series of extenuating circumstances - his age, the fact that he was looking after his ailing wife, the fact that he had not commited crimes since WWII and was not a menace to the public - he would not be sentenced to prison. The prosecution appealed the ruling, demanding a five-year sentence in view of the crimes Dailide had committed.
Dailide also appealed the verdict, asking to be totally acquitted. He claimed he had been a simple clerk during the war and did not take part in persecuting the Jews. The Appeals Court is now waiting for medical-psychological opinions on his condition to determine the case.
Historians and Holocaust scholars say that the court's refraining from sentencing Dailide to prison reflects to a large extent the way Lithuania is dealing with its past - recognizing its crimes, but being reluctant to accept responsibility for them.
They accuse Lithuania of dragging its feet in indicting Nazi criminals, until they are too old to go to jail. They accuse the judges of indifference to the crimes Lithuanians committed during the Nazi period and charge the state with refraining from teaching the Holocaust properly in education programs.
"The Lithuanians are waiting until the Nazi criminals grow old," says Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Israel, who conducted the struggle to indict Dailide in Lithuania. "They enacted special laws enabling the authorities to interrogate and indict war criminals, but in fact no criminal has spent a single minute in prison. Their policy is to wait until they're too old, convict them and not punish them due to their health condition," he says.
Dailide's attorney, Algirdas Matuiza, told Haaretz his client has been living somewhere in Germany for the past year and a half. The German government admitted on Tuesday that Dailide was residing in Germany but said it could not deport him until an official extradition request was submitted by Lithuania.
"We know he is living in Germany," said Johannes Ferguson, spokesman of the German Justice Ministry. "We expect the Lithuanian government to submit an extradition request and then we will help transfer him to Lithuania with no hesitation. At the moment, because he is a citizen of the European Union, our hands are tied until we are requested to act."
Ferguson said he did not know where Dailide was.
Lithuanian journalists said Dailide arrived in Vilnius, where his trial was held over the past year, only for the court sessions. The Lithuanian Justice Ministry refused to comment about Dailide's extradition or where he was staying, as the case was now in Appeals Court.
Dailide's attorney said his client was not interested in being interviewed on the matter.