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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Accused Auschwitz Sign Thieves Face Trial in Poland

Five Polish petty criminals are awaiting trial in the case of the Auschwitz sign stolen in December last year. Prosecutors believe the theft was masterminded from Sweden by Anders Högström, a former neo-Nazi leader, and are trying to extradite him to Poland.
Marcin A., 29, is awaiting his trial in a prison on Montelupich Street in Krakow, Poland. The historical building dates from the 19th century and was first used by a military court. Germany's Gestapo later used the basement to torture and murder prisoners. When World War II ended, the Polish judicial system hanged SS guards from the Auschwitz concentration camp here.
In the worst-case scenario, Marcin A., a construction worker from near the northern Polish city of Torun, will serve a 10-year sentence. He stands accused of having helped to steal an "item of particular cultural importance." That's how lawyers describe the cynical "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free") sign that formed the top part of the entrance gate at Auschwitz, now a museum and memorial site.
The iron sign disappeared suddenly on Dec. 18. Within 70 hours, police recovered it and detained five suspects, including Marcin A.

Krakow's public prosecutors are convinced A. and his four accomplices were put up to the job. They believe Anders Högström, a Swedish former neo-Nazi leader known throughout Europe, was the mastermind behind the theft. Högström claims he is innocent.
The court will decide which statement is true. Swedish police arrested Högström in Stockholm the Thursday before last, and a court will decide this week whether to extradite him to Poland.

Old Mouse and Young Mouse
On Dec. 18, snow covered the cobblestones leading up to the main gate at Auschwitz I, the camp's main section. According to police, four men approached the gate around nightfall. The accused are Andrzej S., known as "Lens" because of the thick glasses he has worn since childhood, the brothers Lukasz and Radoslaw M., called "Old Mouse" and "Young Mouse," and another man who goes by the nickname "Lark." Like Marcin A., all four come from the area around Torun. And all are known to the local police as thieves, burglars and drinkers. Marcin A., who didn't participate in the operation directly, is said to have hired the others, paying each man the equivalent of €1,250 ($1,690) for the job.
The men are believed to have cased the arched gateway together and concluded that they needed tools. They bought a ladder and pliers at a nearby hardware store. Then, at some point during the night, three of the men returned, the fourth waiting in a car. They unscrewed the sign on one side and yanked it out of its mounting. In a nearby park, they sawed the sign into three pieces and loaded it into the backseat of a van. Guards at the memorial site didn't notice the theft until much later. The shift supervisor has since been fired.
While still in the Auschwitz area, the men called Marcin A. to report that the job was complete. Cell phone records later put police on their trail.

The Mastermind Behind the Theft?
Polish investigators believe the thieves were originally supposed to bring the sign to Gdynia, a Polish city on the Baltic Coast. A yellow Seat car with a Swedish license plate was waiting there to transport it to Sweden by ferry. Polish police assume the purchaser at the other end was Anders Högström.
Högström, 34, founded a right-wing extremist political party called the National Socialist Front in the 1990s. Since then, he has publicly declared a change of heart, and even allowed himself to be held up as a reformed sinner at a gala with Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria in Stockholm in 2001. Could he really be the creative mind behind the theft of one of the Holocaust's most important symbols?
Polish investigators think so. They believe Högström either relapsed and wanted to obtain a very special bit of memorabilia, or he might also have hoped to be able to sell the sign to a collector. In any case, they say Högström knew Marcin A., and talked on the phone with him both before and after the theft. A. and his wife had worked for a construction company belonging to Högström's father multiple times in previous years.
The investigators believe Högström panicked when the world reacted to the theft with such outrage, and blew the whistle on his Polish helpers to distract attention from his own guilt.

Politically Charged Atmosphere
Högström bragged to SPIEGEL in January that he had helped advance investigations in the case. He says he was commissioned by unknown individuals to transport the item and offer it to a rich collector. Instead, he claims, he alerted the police.
Why, though, would these unknown criminals have chosen an ex-neo-Nazi, of all people, as their middleman?
Högström has now hired a hotshot attorney, Björn Sandin. Sandin is saying nothing more than that his client is innocent. He also wants to prevent Högström from being extradited to Poland. A Swedish prison is certainly more comfortably appointed than Marcin A.'s cell in Krakow.
A.'s lawyer, Alina Ciechanowicz-Adamska, fears her client's trial may take place in a politically charged atmosphere, since the world at large was so appalled by the theft at Auschwitz. She admits her defense strategy doesn't deny the men were there, and instead plans to argue that Marcin A., Lens, Lark, Old Mouse and Young Mouse didn't really understand the significance of the item they stole. She's hoping to convince the judge that the crime was more the theft of scrap metal, rather than an offense against an "item of particular cultural importance."