WASHINGTON--Charges that Lithuania has begun to exonerate people convicted by Soviet courts of collaborating in Nazi war crimes put a sudden strain yesterday into new U.S. relations with the Baltic republic.
American Jewish leaders expressed shock and anger.
Lithuania agreed to review two of the cases raised by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which said the accused had been exonerated despite testimony that they took part in the killing of Jews in occupied Lithuania, the Associated Press reported.
The charge d'affaires at Lithuania's legation in Washington expressed regret that some people may have been granted certificates of exoneration in violation of Lithuanian law and said the decisions should be reversed.
Stasys Lozoraitis, charge d'affaires, added: "In a group of a thousand people, 15 have slipped through checking and rechecking." If some Nazi war-crimes collaborators were exonerated against Lithuanian law and are now free, "they should be apprehended and locked up," he said.
The allegations came as Secretary of State James A. Baker III preparedto visit the Baltic republics next week and as the United States was weighing expanding aid to them along the lines of the direct, multilateral assistance given to other parts of Eastern Europe.
President Bush declared Monday that he would resume full diplomatic relations with Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which had been incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940.
Under a law enacted there May 2, 1990, Lithuanians who had been convicted by Soviet courts for a variety of crimes can seek exoneration, either for themselves or for relatives no longer living, and can also seek compensation. Lithuania argues that verdicts under the Soviet system have no standing because the accused were deprived of their rights.
But Neal Sher, who heads the U.S. Justice Department office responsible for prosecuting Nazi war criminals, disputed the reported Lithuanian claims that Soviet evidence had no validity.
"In the experience of the United States and the West Germans, there has never been a document provided by the Soviet Union in a Nazi war-criminal case that has been inauthentic or fabricated or in any way not legitimate," he said.
The Lithuanian law forbids rehabilitation certificates' being given to anyone who participated in genocide, torture or the murder of unarmed civilians.
But the Wiesenthal Center, whichtracks Nazi war crimes, contends that 14 of the 1,000 exonerated so far had been convicted of collaborating.
The center has submitted the names of four of the 14 to the Lithuanian government. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal center, said it has received information that an additional 106 people implicated in civilian deaths have been exonerated, and he said the center hopes to pursue those cases as well.
He called on Lithuania to "be true to its past, and acknowledge that some Lithuanians were among the most brutal and sadistic torturers of Jews."
"We suspect they need to review much more than two of them," he said yesterday.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "It's our understanding that the Lithuanian law of last year that annulled illegitimate convictions by Soviet authorities also
specifically excluded genocide and the murder of civilians from that. So I think I just have to reserve further comment until we know more about the actions that they take."
"I'm sure we'll be following up with them to find out more about the actions that are being taken now," he said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and a Holocaust survivor, said he sent a letter to Mr. Baker urging him to raise the issue when he is in Lithuania.
One U.S. official said he would be "shocked" if Mr. Baker didn't. "This is one that should be at the top of the agenda," he said.
In a statement, Mr. Foxman said, "Ironically, in his effort to eradicate 50 years of Communist oppression, President Vytautas Landsbergis is adopting the Communist method of rewriting history by rehabilitating mass murderers of Jews and others."