Whether or not Peter Egner of Belleuve is a war criminal will not be decided this year or next, it appears. Federal prosecutors and his attorneys this week asked the federal court to delay his planned May 18, 2010 trial to Jan. 12, 2011, saying they can't meet the earlier deadline because the case, already more than a year old, is too complex, and that hundreds of newly discovered historical documents regarding Egner's alleged participation in death camp activities have turned up in Serbia.
Both sides also agree they are unlikely to settle the case early. In a joint brief filed Monday here in U.S. District Court, they say the case "is not amenable to settlement or mediation." Egner, a naturalized immigrant since the 1960s, is accused of direct involvement in what the Justice Department says was the mass murder of more than 17,000 Serbian Jews, Gypsies, and political dissidents by the Nazis' Security Police and Security Service (SPSS) during Egner's service in the German Army from 1941 to 1943.The U.S. Office of Special Investigations says the SPSS at times operated a mobile death unit called the Einsatzgruppe. Officials say more than 6,200 of SPSS victims from Belgrade's Semlin concentration camp died after being herded into the Einsatzgruppe's specially-designed vans and asphyxiated with carbon monoxide from piped-in exhaust as they took a funeral ride through Belgrade's streets. They were then buried in mass graves at the foot of Avala Mountain, southeast of Belgrade.
One concern is whether Egner, a white-haired 87-year-old widower in poor health, will live long enough to resolve the accusations, which date to when Egner was a teenaged German security police officer in Belgrade. In court papers, the U.S. says it "is amenable to an extension in this case, despite the advanced age of the Defendant, because it recognizes the complications and delays caused by the number of wartime foreign language documents involved in this case."
The pre-trial discovery of documents has already reached 13,000 pages, the two sides say, and numerous depositions are in the works. Complexities, the parties say, include the fact that the "historical events...occurred in Belgrade, Serbia over sixty years ago, and the documents in this case consist of thousands of pages of wartime documents in German or Serbian. Second, after the case was filed, the Government became aware of thousands of files in a Belgrade archive that could be relevant to the Government's claims.
"Specifically, the Government believed that there could be documents that contained references to the Defendant. The Government reviewed these thousands of documents, all of which were in German, and found several hundred documents that the Government believes to contain specific references to the Defendant by name.
"Over the summer, the Government produced to Defendant the results of its document review in Belgrade - nearly 400 documents in the German and Serbian languages - each of varying length and complexity...The fact that there are many more depositions than the parties anticipated, including two depositions in Belgrade and one in The Hague, also contributes to the need for an extension of the deadlines."
Egner, in documents filed by his attorneys, admits to "having briefly accompanied prisoners on one occasion during a transfer from Belgrade to Avala in an open bus and on one occasion during a transfer from Belgrade to Semlin also in an open bus. On both occasions, Defendant sat in the back of the bus with the prisoners. Following these brief assignments, he returned to his post in Belgrade, where he worked doing clerical office work. He had no knowledge as to the prisoners' ethnic or religious background, the reason for their transfer, nor any knowledge about what happened to them after arrival at Avala or Semlin."
He conceded he "occasionally served as an interpreter in the public reception area of the main lobby of the Belgrade police station run by German occupying forces." But he denied participating in interrogations and claimed to have no knowledge of whether individuals for whom he interpreted were "political prisoners."