National Post | December 05, 2001 | Charlie Gillis

Payouts near $1.8M in failed Nazi trials

Cleared of collaboration: Three cases make up bulk of Immigration settlements

Ottawa has been forced to pay out almost $1.8-million in legal costs to accused Nazi collaborators after court proceedings against the suspects either failed or indicated they may be innocent, internal government documents show.

The payments make up the vast majority of $1.9-million in financial settlements paid out by Citizenship and Immigration Canada in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, according to figures obtained through Access to Information from the Treasury Board.

Three of those payouts, representing fully $1.765-million of the total, went to men whom the government attempted to have stripped of their citizenship.

Johann Dueck, 81, of St. Catharines, Ont., received $750,000; Eduards Podins, 82, of Burnaby, B.C., was given $510,000; Arvids (Peter) Vitols, 86, of Toronto received $505,000.

The settlements have renewed debate about Canada's "no safe haven" policy against alleged Second World War criminals -- a policy that has seen more than $46-million spent on detecting and prosecuting those accused of collaborating with the Nazis.

Since 1995, the government has pursued a strategy aimed at stripping war crimes suspects of their citizenship for lying upon entry to Canada about their war-time past, rather than prosecuting them under the Criminal Code.

Ottawa adopted the tack following a Supreme Court of Canada decision that made criminal prosecutions practically impossible. In a test case in 1994, the high court declared witness evidence too frail and documentation too scarce to support convictions for war crimes.

But the new strategy has opened the Department of Justice to criticism from those who believe Canada is merely shuffling off undesirable characters and, worse, failing in its most important cases.

"Statistically, if you are an alleged war criminal, you stand a better chance of dying of natural causes than being removed from Canada," said Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer who obtained the information. "It seems to me that the budget for war crimes in practice has delivered more harassment than removal."

The men the government paid were all alleged to have assisted German military units or police during the war, and to have lied about their background upon entering Canada.

All three won their cases in the Federal Court of Canada, which cited sketchy evidence and vagaries in Canadian immigration files in its decisions and awarded legal costs to the respondents.

Mr. Dueck's case, in particular, became a cause celebre after it went to trial. Officials from the Department of Justice war crimes unit had spent years and millions of dollars trying to establish the elderly man's complicity in war crimes in the Ukraine, and claimed he had fibbed about his past upon entering the country.

But a Federal Court judge concluded Mr. Dueck was nothing more than a translator for the Nazis who had been compelled under the threat of death to do the work.

Messrs. Vitols and Podins -- both of whom emigrated from Latvia -- won largely because it was unclear exactly what they had told Canadian officials upon arriving here, and because there was little documentation to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Vitols, now 86, had been accused of working for a local police unit in German-occupied Latvia that committed atrocities against civilians. He came to Canada in 1950 and became a citizen six years later. Mr. Podins was accused of being a guard at Valmiera prison, a concentration camp, and an auxiliary police officer under the command of the Germans. He came to Canada in 1959.

Whatever the legal costs, the head of Canada's war crimes unit makes no apologies for continuing the pursuit of alleged Nazi collaborators, noting that the government has won six of the nine cases that have reached Federal Court so far.

"I think it's fair to look at the track record of the government in these matters," said Terry Beitner. "The process is complex and lengthy for several reasons. One of them is to make sure it's fair, to make sure there are checks and balances to protect the interests of the individual concerned."