Court to decide reach of 5th Amendment Is suspected war criminal shielded from testifying?

January 17, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Five decades after World War II, Nazi war crimes are still subject to trial in some foreign nations. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the risk of such a trial shields individuals in the United States from being forced to testify about possible ties to Nazi atrocities.

The court took on the case of a native of Lithuania now living in New York who has refused to discuss his wartime past because he fears that such testimony could lead to a war-crimes trial in his homeland or in Israel.

At issue is whether the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself applies when the individual involved fears prosecution, not in this country, but overseas.

The Justice Department asked the court to bar use of the Fifth Amendment when prosecution would be in foreign courts. The department said the outcome of the case would affect not only Nazi war-crimes investigations but also other cases in an era when crimes -- especially drug crimes and terrorism -- are becoming globalized.

At the center of the dispute is Aloyzas Balsys, of Woodhaven, N.Y. Now 84, Balsys entered this country in 1961. On his visa application, he said he had served in the Lithuanian army between 1934 and 1940 and had lived in hiding in Lithuania throughout World War II.

Justice Department investigations, however, have turned up information that Balsys was a member of the security police who helped Nazi occupying forces in his homeland persecute Jews and other civilians.

Now facing deportation, Balsys was asked about his wartime past. He refused to answer, noting that he could be prosecuted under laws in Lithuania or Israel that provide for war-crimes trials for Nazis or Nazi collaborators.

A federal appeals court based in New York City said the fact that Balsys' fears involved a foreign, rather than an American, court made no difference: He can still rely on the Fifth Amendment and not be forced to give evidence against himself.

A Supreme Court ruling is expected by early next summer.

In another Justice Department case, the court agreed to spell out where federal prosecutors may bring money-laundering cases: in the state where prosecutors believe the money was laundered or in the state where they think the crime that produced the money occurred.

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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