Former Nazi Helmut Oberlander stripped of citizenship again

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WATERLOO—Canada has once again stripped Helmut Oberlander, 93, of his citizenship for serving in a Nazi death squad and lying about it to enter Canada.

It’s the fourth time the government has taken this step after Oberlander defeated the government in court three times to restore his citizenship.

For the fourth time Oberlander is going to court to overturn the political decision, made this time by the federal cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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“We are determined to deny safe haven in Canada to war criminals and persons believed to have committed or been complicit in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide,” Pierre Deveau, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in a statement.

Liberal and Conservative governments have been pursuing the retired Waterloo developer since 1995 in a case that’s into its third decade and fourth prime minister.

Oberlander’s lawyers suspected the government was poised to announce its decision when two RCMP officers surprised Oberlander last month by appearing at his door and asking to speak with him.

“I suppose they were trying to determine if he was still of sound mind and health and could receive the decision,” said Ron Poulton, Oberlander’s lawyer.

Poulton said Oberlander felt intimidated and called his daughter to his home. The pair asked police why they came. “They were kind of cagey about it and we couldn’t really get any answers on it, but we knew something was coming,” he said. The police left.

In 1995, the government announced its prosecution days after two RCMP officers surprised Oberlander by visiting him at home to talk about the Second World War.

Oberlander is an ethnic German born and raised in Ukraine under Soviet rule. He served as a decorated, low-level interpreter in a mobile death squad that murdered at least 23,000 civilians, mostly Jews, between 1941 and 1943.

He says he was conscripted by invading Germans the month he turned 18 in 1942. He denies participating in war crimes and denies lying about it to immigrate in 1954.

Oberlander was made a German citizen in 1944 to honour his service. Canada made him a citizen in 1960.

No evidence was presented to a court that Oberlander personally participated in war crimes. In 2000, a court found that he lied about his membership in the death squad before entering Canada, where he pursued a successful career as a developer.

“We thank and applaud the Government of Canada,” Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said in a statement.

Fogel said Oberlander has “been exploiting our judicial process to avoid prosecution in Germany. There is no statute of limitations for such heinous crimes, and the government deserves credit for its tireless efforts in this case.

“This latest development is an important milestone in bringing a measure of justice to his many victims and their families.”

The decision distressed Ernst Friedel, a director with the German-Canadian Congress, who said Oberlander is being unfairly prosecuted for translations he provided as a young man without a choice.

“This has nothing to do with justice,” Friedel said. “I compare it to the Middle Ages, to declare someone something bad, and to go after that person relentlessly.”

Trudeau said in 2016 that his government is committed to prosecuting immigrants such as Oberlander who lie about their past to become citizens.

“There is one condition in which citizenship can be revoked, and that is when it was acquired based on fraud, misinformation and not representing clearly who one was,” Trudeau said while visiting Waterloo.

“And that is at the core of this case I’m sure . . . Canadians are rightly proud, not just of our citizenship, but of the values that are articulated by that citizenship, and we have to make sure that we’re doing everything to defend the principles and values that it mean to be Canadian.”

Poulton said it’s remarkable the government is still pursuing Oberlander after he defeated them in court three times.

“Given his age and the number of times they’ve lost, I’ve never seen the government pursue someone like this to such a degree,” he said.

While the federal cabinet argues it has the right to strip Oberlander’s citizenship because he lied to get it, courts have repeatedly told cabinet it must also weigh other factors, such as Oberlander’s level of complicity in the death squad.

Poulton said the government’s latest decision “ignores and misstates evidence. They really stretched this time to try to find him complicit.”

Last fall, the government gave Oberlander 90 days to respond to a government report and to explain why his citizenship should not be revoked. He did this and cabinet chose to revoke his citizenship again, on June 20.

“We also know the value of Canadian citizenship and cannot allow anyone to defraud the system or diminish its integrity,” said Deveau, spokesperson for the government. “We don’t take citizenship revocation lightly, but it is necessary in cases of fraud and serious misrepresentation.”

Oberlander is seeking a judicial review of cabinet’s decision, as he has done previously. A court hearing is expected in the fall or early 2018.

Bernie Farber, former chief executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress, blames Federal Court of Appeal rulings rather than government failures for a case that’s dragged on for decades. He’s heartened that governments have not given up, but expects Oberlander may die before the prosecution concludes.

“The government sends a strong message in this day and age to would-be war criminals and would-be alleged war criminals that they will be hunted ’til their dying days,” he said.

Farber argues against seeing Oberlander as 93. “We ought not to think of him as he is today. We ought to remember him and those others who participated in the murder of tens of thousands of people as they were: young, vibrant bullies and alleged murderers,” he said.

“To think about them in their old age denies really the sweet lives of those that were caught up in the web of mass murder that the Nazis perpetrated. They never got to live. He did.”