ROME (AP) — Erich Priebke, a former Nazi SS captain who evaded arrest for nearly 50 years after taking part in one of the worst atrocities by German occupiers in Italy during World War II, died Friday, his lawyer said. He was 100.
Priebke was finally extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to face trial for the 1944 massacre, and he was sentenced to life in prison. However he served that sentence under house arrest at the Rome home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini.
Giachini announced the death and released a final interview conducted with Priebke in July during which the German denied that Nazis gassed Jews during the Holocaust and accused the West of having fabricated the crimes to minimize the Allies' own abuses during the war.
Priebke was tried and convicted for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians by Nazi forces at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an attack by resistance fighters that killed 33 members of a Nazi military police unit a day earlier.
Priebke admitted shooting two people and rounding up victims, but insisted he was only following orders.
He long felt like he had been scapegoated, since many other Germans who had participated in the massacre weren't convicted, another lawyer, Carlo Taormina, told The Associated Press.
"The dignity with which he withstood his persecution made him an example of courage, coherence and loyalty," Giachini said in the statement.
Priebke had escaped in 1946 from a British prison camp in Rimini, a resort town on Italy's Adriatic coast, and had lived in Argentina for nearly 50 years before a U.S. television program reported that he was living freely in the country.
That started a lengthy extradition process that ended with him boarding a plane in Argentina on Nov. 20, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, to stand trial in Italy.
The country's highest appeals court upheld his conviction and life sentence in 1998. He was allowed to serve the term under house arrest due to his age, but was subsequently given small freedoms such as going to church and doing personal shopping — concessions that outraged Rome's Jewish community.
Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter who just this year launched a new push to search for unpunished war criminals, said Priebke's case proves it is never too late to seek justice.
"Priebke's death at the age of 100 should be a powerful reminder that some of the worst perpetrators of the crimes of the Holocaust live to a healthy old age and that a person's chronological age should never prevent them from being held accountable for their crimes, if they are healthy enough to be brought to justice," he said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "Priebke was a classic example of a totally unrepentant Nazi war criminal."
In his final interview, Priebke denied that gas chambers were used in Nazi concentration camps and that generations have been "brainwashed" into believing that they were. He acknowledged he could be prosecuted for denying the Holocaust, but said such laws "demonstrate fear of the truth coming out."
David Rising in Berlin and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.