When an international tribunal last week pronounced the former Serbian commander Gen. Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and sentenced him to spend the rest of his days in prison, it reinforced a pillar of civilization: No crime against humanity, no matter how long ago it occurred, should be immune to cries for justice. And no criminal is too old to be deservedly punished.
This is so if the person is 75 years old, like General Mladic. It is so even if he is much older, 94, and said to be in poor health. We’re referring to Jakiw Palij, a Queens man who in his youth was a guard at Trawniki in Poland. It was a Nazi camp that trained men who carried out orders to round up Jews for extermination. They were volunteers in the Nazis’ killing apparatus.
Mr. Palij has insisted he was never a collaborator. But the United States government determined in the early 2000’s that he was, and that he lied his way into this country by claiming on arrival in 1949 to have been a Polish farmer. He was granted citizenship in 1957, but a federal judge revoked it in 2003. In 2005, a deportation order was issued. Yet he remains in Jackson Heights, Queens, and may well end his life there, for two reasons.
One, he is not subject to American jurisprudence because the crimes were committed abroad and he is no longer a United States citizen. Two, no country wants him. Logical destinations are Germany, Poland or Ukraine, which now controls the part of Poland he came from. But they all say no. At the prodding of a yeshiva on Long Island, members of the New York congressional delegation recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to, in effect, lean on those countries. Whether Mr. Tillerson will take their request to heart remains to be seen.
The pursuit of Nazi collaborators, principally by a division of the Justice Department, is nearly four decades old and has led to dozens of people being stripped of their citizenship and sent packing. With the enactment of a law in 2004 that prohibited human rights violators from finding a haven in this country, Washington began to crack down on abusers from all over. Thuggish generals from El Salvador were deported a quarter-century after being allowed to settle in Florida. A similar fate fell to officials who’d managed to find American shelter even though they figured in the troubled history of places like Rwanda, Peru, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, Guatemala and Argentina.
With those stained by their Nazi past, deportation was easier many years ago because some Eastern European countries were prepared to accept them. That has changed; the spirit there is no longer willing. The Justice Department says that since 2005 it has won deportation orders for 11 Nazi criminals, but only one was actually shipped out: the notorious John Demjanjuk, who died at age 91 in Germany in 2012. That was nearly a year after a German court found him guilty of taking part in the murder of 28,000 people at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.