If Linnas' Fate Is Cruel, His Victims' Was Crueler

Posted: April 22, 1987

In Ronald Reagan's America this week, a man protesting his innocence was forcibly loaded on an East European passenger jet and sent off to the Soviet Union to face almost-certain death at the hands of a judicial system no one could claim is impartial. Bad as that sounds, it was the fairest way to resolve the case of Karl Linnas.

Linnas, 67, was no ordinary criminal. Indeed, the only crime he committed during his 36 years of residence in this country was lying on his immigration application. But, oh, what a lie. According to the evidence presented at a 1981 trial to deport him, Linnas neglected to mention that during World War II, he was commander of the Tartu concentration camp in Estonia (now part of the Soviet Union), where 12,000 people were put to death by the Nazis.

Under U.S. law, the former land surveyor from Greenlawn, N.Y., could not be tried here for crimes committed on foreign soil. But his conduct during the war was central to the government's case against him. The three-judge federal panel that reviewed the decision to deport him called the evidence ''overwhelming and largely uncontroverted," despite Linnas' refusal to take part in the proceedings. Appeals to overturn or stay the deportation order went all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused Monday to extend an order blocking Linnas' forced departure.

The delivering of Linnas to Soviet justice, under which he was tried in absentia in 1962 and sentenced to death, created unlikely alliances: the American Civil Liberties Union and right-wing Reaganites argued against his deportation, while the Soviet government and American Jewish organizations pressed to send him back. The failure of any third country to offer him a haven - an egregious compromise that would have caused a different sort of uproar - sealed his fate.

Linnas' defenders noted that the bulk of the evidence used in the deportation trial was videotaped testimony of survivors still living in the Soviet Union - people who could be coached and pressured to say the right things. But American courts made the ultimate judgment on the validity of the evidence. Nazi deportation trials, inevitably based on survivors' memories of events that happened long ago, are bound to be messy. The alternative - granting de facto amnesty to accused war criminals - is worse.

The image in the news Monday of an elderly, white-bearded man shouting ''God bless America" as he was shoved into a police car en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport was disturbing. But it pales when compared with scenes from the distant past cited by the three judges who upheld the deportation order:

"Eyewitnesses testified that Linnas supervised the transportation of prisoners from his camp to a nearby anti-tank ditch," the court wrote. "On such occasions innocent Jewish women and children were tied by their hands and brought in their underwear to the edge of the ditch, where they were forced to kneel. The guards then opened fire. The ditch became a mass grave."

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