Italian judges Wednesday convicted 10 former members of the Nazi SS (search) accused of taking part in the 1944 massacre of more than 500 villagers in northern Italy and sentenced them to life in prison, a defense lawyer said.

The verdict was returned after about seven hours of deliberations by the three-judge panel, ANSA said. The defendants, all German men in their 80s, were being tried in absentia in the Italian town of La Spezia (search). The men are believed to be in Germany.

Luigi Trucco (search), a lawyer for two of the defendants, expressed disappointment at the ruling and said an appeal is expected.

"You don't want such a ruling to become final," he said. Trucco added he would wait for the written explanations that judges have to give after they made a ruling.

But, he said "the judges evidently accepted the prosecutors' argument that they all knew and were all present."

In August 1944, about 300 SS troops surrounded the Tuscan village of Sant'Anna di Stazzema, which had been flooded with refugees, ostensibly to hunt for partisans. Instead, they rounded up and shot villagers, according to survivors. Others were herded into basements and other enclosed spaces and killed with hand grenades.

Historical documents are not clear on the precise number killed, but the most commonly cited number is 560 people.

Shortly before deliberations began earlier Wednesday, Prosecutor Marco De Paolis told the court that the defendants chose to participate in the killings and were not just following orders, the ANSA news agency reported.

De Paolis said that since the 16th Panzagrenadier Division had suffered heavy losses before the massacre, soldiers were acting above their rank, and that no witness had cited cases of soldiers being punished for disobeying orders, ANSA reported.

In his closing remarks Tuesday, Trucco said the prosecutor's arguments were "based on abstractions and suggestions," ANSA reported. He also said that no human action could now make amends for the slaughter. "Justice should not be a vendetta," ANSA quoted him as saying.

The slaughter was one of the worst in a series of atrocities by Nazi troops in central and northern of Italy during World War II. Italian authorities began investigating the massacre a few years ago when officials found reports on the killings drawn up by Allied forces at the end of the war.