GENEVA – A Swiss court has cleared the way for Gypsies to sue IBM over published allegations that the computer company's punch-card machines helped the Nazis commit mass murder more efficiently, the plaintiffs' lawyer said Tuesday.
The Geneva appeals court disagreed with a lower court that refused to hear the case last year on grounds it lacked jurisdiction, said the Gypsies' lawyer, Henri-Philippe Sambuc.
A Gypsy group filed the lawsuit in Geneva because IBM's wartime European headquarters were in the city. They claim the office was IBM's hub for trade with the Nazis.
"IBM's complicity through material or intellectual assistance to the criminal acts of the Nazis during World War II via its Geneva office cannot be ruled out," said the appeals court ruling. It cited "a significant body of evidence indicating that the Geneva office could have been aware that it was assisting these acts."
In its June 2003 ruling, the lower court said IBM only had an "antenna" in the Swiss city. City archives, however, show that in 1936 IBM opened an office under the name "International Business Machines Corporation New York, European Headquarters."
No immediate reaction to the ruling was available from IBM's Geneva lawyers, who have previously referred requests for comment to the company's headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. Company officials there did not immediately return calls.
IBM has consistently denied it was in any way responsible for the way its machines were used in the Holocaust.
The company has said its German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (search) — or Dehomag — was taken over by the Nazis before World War II, and it had no control over operations there or how Nazis used IBM machines.
Sambuc maintains that the company's Geneva office continued to coordinate Europe-wide trade with the Nazis, acting on clear instructions from world headquarters in New York.
The group represented by Sambuc — Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action (search) — sued IBM for "moral reparation" and $20,000 each in damages on behalf of four Gypsies from Germany and France and one Polish-born Swedish Gypsy. All five plaintiffs were orphaned in the Holocaust.
The campaigners began planning the lawsuit after U.S. author Edwin Black (search) wrote in a 2001 book, "IBM and the Holocaust," that IBM punch-card machines enabled the Nazis to make their killing operations more efficient.
Black said the punch-card machines were used to codify information about people sent to concentration camps. The number 12 represented a Gypsy inmate, while Jews were recorded with the number 8. The code D4 meant a prisoner had been killed.
In addition to 6 million Jews, the Nazis are believed to have killed around 600,000 Gypsies, although Gypsy groups say the number could have been as high as 1.5 million.
"It does not appear inconsistent to conclude that the respondent [IBM] facilitated the task of the Nazis in their committing of crimes against humanity — acts which were counted and codified by IBM machines," the ruling said.
IBM's German division has paid into Germany's government-industry initiative to compensate people forced to work for the Nazis during the war.
In April 2001, a class action lawsuit against IBM in New York was dropped after lawyers said they feared it would slow down payments from the German Holocaust fund. German companies had sought freedom from legal actions before committing to the fund.
The Geneva case is the first Holocaust-related action against IBM in Europe, Sambuc said. A city court will likely hear the lawsuit in the fall, unless IBM lodges an appeal at the Federal Tribunal, Switzerland's supreme court.