Thursday, October 19, 2006

U.S. frees ex-Nazi guard as deportation bid fails

U.S. frees ex-Nazi guard as deportation bid fails

DETROIT (Reuters) - An 81-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard was freed this week from a Michigan jail after U.S. officials failed to find a country that would take him in a deportation proceeding.

Johann Leprich, who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1987, had been held in a county jail in Michigan since investigators found him hiding in a secret chamber in his suburban Detroit house in 2003.

Romania, Hungary and Germany all declined to accept Leprich, an ethnic German who was born in Romania, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.

U.S. authorities chose to free Leprich after his lawyer asked a federal judge to order him released, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set a six-month limit on the period the government can hold detainees awaiting a court-ordered deportation.

"He was in custody for about 40 months," Leprich's Cleveland-based lawyer Joseph McGinness said. "They could not detain him and they released him."

Leprich will be issued an electronic monitor to wear on his ankle and be required to report weekly to U.S. authorities as a condition of his release, said Greg Palmore, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Palmore said U.S. officials would continue to try to negotiate an agreement that would allow Leprich to be deported to Europe. "Our work continues," he said.

Leprich had joined the Waffen SS in 1943 and served as a guard at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in 1943 and 1944, according to court records.

An estimated 119,000 prisoners died at Mauthausen, including political prisoners, Jews and prisoners of war.

The federal court that revoked Leprich's citizenship for lying on his application found inmates at Mauthausen had been used as slave laborers and that many had been starved, beaten, tortured and killed at the camp.

Leprich immigrated to the United States in 1952 and became a naturalized citizen in 1958, settling in suburban Detroit.

He said when he applied to become a citizen that he had served in the Hungarian Army during the war. He later said he had been forced to join the Waffen SS but had never killed anyone.

Leprich fled to Canada after his citizenship was revoked. In 2003, an investigator found him hiding in a secret compartment under the basement stairs in his Clinton Township, Michigan home as part of a renewed search.

McGinness said he believed that no nation would accept his client, effectively ending the 20-year-old case against him.

"I think this is the end of this one, but I can be surprised," he said.