MELBOURNE, Australia — Over the past 18 years, one country after another chased out Konrad Kalejs, first the United States, then Canada and Britain.
Judges in Chicago and Toronto ruled that Kalejs was an officer in a notorious Nazi unit that exterminated thousands of Jews during World War II and guarded concentration camps in his native Latvia.
But Kalejs always knew there was one place he could live in peace: his adopted homeland, Australia.
Over the past decade, Kalejs has become the poster child for Australian tolerance of suspected Nazi war criminals. As other democratic countries have sought to keep out Kalejs and his kind, Australia has gained a reputation as a haven.
Now, at 87, Kalejs is about to test the limits of Australian leniency.
In September, Latvia charged Kalejs with genocide for his alleged role in killing Jews during World War II. The Baltic nation requested Kalejs' extradition, and Australian police arrested him Dec. 13 at his home here. Kalejs, who denies any part in war crimes, was released after agreeing not to leave Australia. Officials expect him to contest extradition in a court tussle that could last two years.
If the Australian courts agree to hand over Kalejs, it would be a first.
"Australia remains the only Western country to which numerous Nazi war criminals emigrated after World War II that has never taken action against a single one," said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "There has never been a conviction on criminal charges, there has never been a denaturalization or a deportation or an expulsion or an extradition."
Perhaps it is Australia's origin as a penal colony that has made its people willing to overlook the past. Or maybe it is the continent's distance from the horrors of World War II Europe. But after unsuccessful efforts in the early 1990s to put three war crimes suspects on trial, Australia gave up trying.
In Canberra, the capital, Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone said that Australia has adopted tough war crimes laws but that the standard of proof required for a conviction can be difficult in cases where the incidents occurred long ago in another country.
Furthermore, naturalized Australians such as Kalejs cannot be stripped of their citizenship and deported for lying their way into the country as long as they held their citizenship for 10 years before 1997, when the law was changed.
"Everybody would like people who are war criminals to be in jail--everybody I know anyway," Vanstone said. "With respect, it's not always one person's fault or one country's fault. Sometimes things don't work out the way you want."
After War, Nazis Lied to Gain Entry
Australia fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, primarily against Japan in the Pacific. After the war, the continent opened its borders to refugees from war-torn Europe, including survivors of the Holocaust. In theory, Nazi war criminals were denied entry, but hundreds lied about their past, won permission to immigrate and eventually became naturalized citizens. Australia was not alone; hundreds entered the U.S., Canada and Britain in the same way.
In Australia, charges began surfacing as early as the 1950s that war criminals had gained sanctuary, but for decades no serious investigation was carried out. Most of the Nazi immigrants lived out their lives and died in peaceful obscurity.
In 1986, Sydney journalist Mark Aarons produced a series of reports documenting the presence of Nazi war criminals in Australia. He found that the nation's intelligence agents knowingly let war criminals enter the country because of the Nazis' staunch opposition to communism, which was perceived in the postwar climate as a greater threat than fascism.
His reports prompted the government to examine its record, and in 1987 it established the Special Investigations Unit to collect evidence and prepare charges against war crime suspects.
Robert Greenwood, the unit's first director, said the agency investigated 880 suspects and found evidence implicating more than 200 in serious war crimes, although by then many had died.
Despite Evidence, Cases Dropped
Australia's independent Department of Public Prosecutions agreed to bring three of the unit's cases to trial. A judge threw out the first for lack of evidence. The second ended in acquittal. Prosecutors abandoned the third after the defendant had a heart attack. Despite evidence against dozens more--including Kalejs--the government shut down the Special Investigations Unit in mid-1992, citing lack of success in winning convictions and the high cost of pursuing cases.