SEATTLE – A trial to determine whether an elderly Bellevue, Wash., man will be stripped of his U.S. citizenship for his alleged involvement in a Nazi death squad has been delayed for more than a year while lawyers pore over thousands of new World War II-era documents recently uncovered in Belgrade, Serbia.
The immigration attorneys representing 87-year-old Peter Egner and the senior trial attorney from the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, which hunts and prosecutes suspected war criminals, have agreed the original May 2010 trial date won’t be met because of the complexity of the case and the need to translate tens of thousands of wartime documents.
U.S. District Judge James Robart set a new trial date for Jan. 12, 2011.
The government is asking Robart to take away Egner’s citizenship, alleging he lied about his involvement in a Nazi death squad when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1960. He won his citizenship in 1966 and lived here quietly for more than 40 years before OSI investigators tracked him down.
He’s currently living with family in Bellevue, according to his Seattle lawyer, Robert Gibbs.
In recent case filings, the government’s lawyers say investigators have uncovered “thousands of files in a Belgrade archive” after it filed the lawsuit against Egner in 2008.
Many of those documents, the government believes, are relevant to Egner’s alleged membership in the notorious Einsatzgruppe, whose troops acted as the spearhead of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the effort to rid Europe of Jews and others Hitler deemed undesirable. The brutal police force rounded up tens of thousands of Serbian men, women and children, sending many to their deaths in prison camps and interrogating, torturing and executing others.
Gibbs said he’s reviewed some of the documents, and doesn’t believe they show his client was involved in atrocities. Egner, he said, was a clerk whose name might appear on any number of documents.
The government alleges that in 1941 and 1942, Egner was a guard and interpreter for a unit of the Einsatzgruppe that operated a mobile unit used to gas prisoners, including as many as 6,200 women and children who were suffocated in the back of a specially equipped truck on a trip from the Semlin concentration camp to Avala, a mountain south of Belgrade where the Nazis executed more than 80,000 prisoners.
According to Gibbs, Egner has said he rode with prisoners twice on a bus, but didn’t know their ethnicity or what eventually happened to them. He spent most of his time acting as an interpreter and clerk at police headquarters in Belgrade, according to Egner’s response to the lawsuit. Egner claims in court documents that he was seriously wounded in 1943 and never returned to his unit.
A Serbian war-crimes court has opened a genocide investigation with help from the U.S., and officials in Belgrade say they want to extradite Egner if his U.S. citizenship is revoked.