VIENNA, Austria – Milivoj Asner caused a stir just by showing up at a soccer game: The frail 95-year-old is ranked No. 4 on a leading list of most-wanted Nazi war crimes suspects.
Now Austria's most notorious far-right politician, former Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, has touched off an even bigger scandal by praising Asner as a "treasured" neighbor who should be allowed to live out his days in peace.
"This could only happen in Austria," Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Associated Press.
Officials in southern Austria, where Asner lives openly despite being indicted for crimes against humanity in his native Croatia, contend the retired police chief is mentally unfit for questioning, extradition or trial.
But Asner's recent appearance at a "fan zone" near his home in the southern city of Klagenfurt — where he reportedly looked fit and lucid as he and his wife watched Croatia play in the European Championship — has some questioning whether this alpine country with a tortured World War II past is shielding him from justice.
Asner stands accused of persecuting hundreds of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies and dispatching them to their deaths in WWII-era Croatia, which was ruled by a Nazi puppet regime.
"Austria has the habit of closing its eyes," renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld told French television Thursday. The Asner case, he said, is fresh proof the country is a safe haven for suspected war criminals.
Haider's impassioned defense of Asner has only reinforced that impression.
Haider, who brought the Freedom Party into Austria's coalition government in 2000 on a platform tinged with anti-Semitic and xenophobic undertones, is the governor of the province of Carinthia where Asner lives.
"He's lived peacefully among us for years, and he should be able to live out the twilight of his life with us," Haider told the newspaper Der Standard this week.
"This is a nice family. We really treasure this family," he was quoted as saying.
Such praise is unconscionable, said Zuroff, who has been pressuring the Austrian government to arrest Asner and hand him over for trial as part of "Operation: Last Chance" — an effort to bring aging top suspects to justice before they die.
"This is clearly a reflection of the political atmosphere which exists in Austria and which in certain circles is extremely sympathetic to suspected Nazi war criminals," Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Israel.
Asner, he added, "has never showed any remorse for actions which affected the fates of hundreds of people."
Asner's indictment alleges he actively enforced racist laws while police chief in the eastern Croatian town of Pozega in 1941-42, and sent his victims to a Croat-run death camp. The Wiesenthal Center ranks him No. 4 on a list of 10 top Nazi fugitives.
Asner has maintained his innocence, and in an interview aired Thursday on state-run Croatian television, declared: "My conscience is clear."
"I am ready to come to face the court in Croatia, but I'm not in the best health," Asner said, adding that if the judges were honest, "they would have to acquit me."
He acknowledged he participated in deportations of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, but insisted the deportees were sent to their homelands and not to camps.
Austria's Justice Ministry said it is reviewing a request from Zuroff to make a fresh assessment of Asner's physical and mental state and prove he is suffering from dementia as experts have ruled in the past.
Without a new evaluation declaring him physically and mentally fit, "our hands are tied," said ministry spokesman Thomas Geiblinger.
Croatia demanded Asner's extradition in 2005, the year he was formally indicted. But the Austrians demurred, first on the grounds that he was an Austrian citizen. Later, they claimed the statute of limitations for his alleged crimes had expired.
Austria eventually conceded that Asner was not an Austrian citizen, which normally would have opened the way for his extradition. But in 2006, independent experts declared Asner mentally unfit, and they did so again in April.
Among those challenging that assessment is Gerhard Tuschla, a reporter for Austrian public broadcaster ORF. Tuschla said he recently interviewed Asner, who began living under the name George Aschner after fleeing Croatia for Austria in 1945, and found him to be "a jovial, whiskey-drinking old man."
"We suspected from the very beginning that he might have been faking it — making a specific effort to appear as unfit as possible," Zuroff said. "That might be easier to fake than physical issues."
Austrian authorities have angrily denied they are giving Asner safe haven.
Manfred Herrnhofer, a federal court spokesman in Klagenfurt, said officials are merely trying to comply with complicated extradition guidelines "and in no way are protecting a suspected Nazi war criminal."
"Austria is a constitutional state, not Guantanamo. We don't toss our principles overboard for political gain," he said.
The affair comes just as Austria takes over the chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research — a 25-nation panel dedicated to maintaining the memory of Nazi atrocities.
Members who met in the western city of Linz this week credited Austria with making huge strides toward coming to terms with its complicity in crimes after Hitler's Germany annexed the country in 1938.
"I think that Austria is quite advanced in a number of areas where other countries are still struggling," said Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who serves as the task force's honorary chairman.
Yet right-wing politicians like Haider still exert influence, and efforts to establish an institute in Vienna to house the archives of Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, have bogged down in a dispute over funding.
Austria needs to take Asner into custody and hand him over if it wants to demonstrate it has truly overcome its dark past, Zuroff said.
"The Austrians have totally mishandled this," he said. "I really can't think of a worse way to remember the Holocaust than to not arrest a leading Nazi war crimes suspect."