A German court on Tuesday threw out a case against an 89-year-old former SS machine gunner accused of participating in the massacre of 642 French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane during World War Two.
Prosecutors had accused the man known only as Werner C, due to German privacy laws, of taking an active role in the massacre. He had been charged with the murders of 25 people and with being an accessory to the murders of hundreds of others. But the Cologne court dismissed the trial on the basis of insufficient evidence.
In June 1944 a German SS battalion, known as Der Führer, rounded up and killed a total of 642 people — including 254 women and 207 children — in Oradour-sur-Glane. After massacring the majority of the village's population, SS troops then set its buildings on fire and shot those attempting to flee the flames.
Oradour, the remains of which have since been made a permanent memorial, saw German troops enter the village in apparent retaliation for the alleged kidnap of a senior German officer in the local area. They rounded up its populace, separating the men from the women and children. The men were taken into barns before being executed by firing squads. The women and children were corralled into the local church, which was subsequently locked and set on fire. Anyone attempting to escape the blaze was shot by surrounding troops.
Prosecutors accused Werner C, who was 19 at the time of the attacks, of being an active member of a firing squad in the village. Under the accessory charge, he was also alleged to have carried "flammable material" into the church building, or maintained active surveillance in the village. The German case rested on files found in the headquarters of the Stasi secret police, in what was formerly East Germany, which identified Werner C and five others. While Werner C did not deny being in the village at the time of the atrocity he denied taking any role in the murders.
Speaking in August, when the suspect was originally charged, his lawyer, Rainer Pohlen, told the Associated Press: "My client contests any participation in this massacre, which he finds a truly terrible act."
Dismissing the case on Tuesday, the court ruled that establishing the presence of the suspect in the village alone was not sufficient evidence to prove either the murder or accessory charges. It also said the prosecutors had failed to gather sufficient evidence, either documentary or witness, to contradict the suspect's claims that he did not participate in the killings. In a statement released following the ruling the court stated: "This mere presence is not enough to prove accessory to murder without the proof of other circumstances."
German prosecutors have up to a week to appeal the verdict.