By Nick Coleman

RIGA - The Latvian prosecutor general's office, Sept. 27 charged Konrads Kalejs, an 87-year-old Australian citizen of Latvian descent with crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. But the refusal by a Riga district court judge to sign a warrant for Kalejs' arrest dented hopes that he might be whisked to Riga to face trial.

Without an arrest warrant Latvia cannot request that the Australian authorities extradite Kalejs, said Dzintra Subrovska, press officer at the Prosecutor General's Office. The prosecutor's office intends to appeal the judge's decision to a regional court, she said. It has seven days to do so.

While welcoming the decision to prosecute, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, expressed alarm at the delay in obtaining the warrant.

"We congratulate the Latvian prosecutor general, Janis Maizitis, and his staff on the submission of the indictment," he said. "But the danger exists that Kalejs will seek to escape justice by fleeing Australia. We urge the Latvian judicial authorities to take whatever steps are necessary to obtain the arrest warrant as quickly as possible."

As commander of the guards at the Salaspils police and labor camp between June 1942 and July 1943, prosecutors allege Kalejs was involved in the tortuous treatment of prisoners there, often resulting in death, said Subrovska. Thousands died at Salaspils, although the Soviet-era figure of 10,000 is not reliable, said Ilmars Paegle, director of the Salaspils Memorial Museum.

The genocide charge against Kalejs relates to the death of all but ten of 300 Jews transported to Salaspils from Western and Central Europe during his time as head guard, said Subrovska.

"They were sent there purely because of their race, unlike the others who were accused of crimes against the regime," she said.

Kalejs bears particular responsibility for the deaths of at least six people shot while trying to escape, Subrovska added.

But Zuroff was criticized by Paegle for ignoring Salaspils' many non-Jewish victims.

"Salaspils was not a Jewish camp," he said.

"People from Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and anti-fascist partisans and their families suffered there. It was a labor camp and a transit camp from which the healthy were sent to work in camps in Germany."

Paegle's dismissal of Zuroff's role as "propagandist" came on a day when U.S. Senate hopeful Hillary Clinton made arguably propagandist use of the case, writing to Australian Prime Minister John Howard to urge that Kalejs be brought to justice.

Clinton, wife of U.S. President Bill Clinton, is running for a Senate seat in New York, home to the United States' and one of the world's largest Jewish populations.

But besides the fact that disproportionate numbers of Jews died at Salaspils, the Wiesenthal Center's pursuit of Kalejs relates in part to his earlier activities, immediately after the entry of German forces into Latvia when he was a member of the Arajs Kommando, a squad of Latvian volunteers blamed for the deaths of more than 30,000 Jews, Roma and communists.

Zuroff acknowledges that hard evidence of Kalejs' involvement in these murders is scant. But his membership in the Arajs Kommando, which Kalejs has admitted, makes it "highly likely" that he played a role in the murder of thousands of Jews at Bikernieku forest, the decimation of at least 10 Jewish communities in provincial towns and the death of 30,000 of Riga's Jews in Rumbula forest, he said.

He urged the prosecutor general to waste no time in charging 88-year-old Karlis Ozols, another Arajs Kommando member of Latvian birth resident in Australia. In Ozols' case, the evidence is "even stronger," said Zuroff.

"With Ozols there is also a question mark concerning the first six months of Nazi occupation. But his involvement in mass murder in Belarus is proven. I don't see what they're waiting for."

But Grigorijs Krupnikovs, chairman of the Riga Jewish community, criticized the Simon Wiesenthal Center, saying "its performance is not always the best."

"No one has the right to call Kalejs a criminal. A suspected criminal, yes," he said.

"I respect the presumption of innocence, despite my moral attitude to his membership in the Arajs Kommando. We don't need a Soviet-style show trial ending up in a fiasco."

But Zuroff was scathing of Krupnikovs' comment that there were "practically no Jews in Salaspils when Kalejs was a guard."

"There were no Latvian Jews but there were German Jews," said Zuroff.

"Often local Jewish communities are not as active or outspoken in seeking trials as they should be, for fear of the implications. But we're a world community, there's solidarity. I don't know where he (Krupnikovs) is coming from."

The decision to prosecute Kalejs met a positive response from Prime Minister Andris Berzins, whose comments were echoed by politicians from other parties.

"Latvia has always been ready to investigate crimes against humanity regardless of which army the person served in," said Arnis Liepins, Berzins' spokesman.

But a trial will "further damage Latvia's image," Janis Jurkans, chairman of For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition, told the Baltic News Service.

The Baltic Times  OCTOBER 5 - 11 , 2000