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Swedish Man Gets 2 Years for Auschwitz Sign Theft

WARSAW, Poland -- A Swedish man was sentenced Thursday to two years and eight months in prison for instigating the theft last year of the notorious "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Sets You Free") sign from the former Auschwitz death camp.

A judge at a regional court in the southern Polish city of Krakow approved a settlement that Anders Hogstrom, 35, had reached with prosecutors, court spokesman Rafal Lisak said.

Hogstrom had confessed to involvement in the December 2009 theft and was convicted of instigating it. He is expected to be transferred to Sweden in the coming weeks to serve his term, Lisak said.

Both sides have seven days to appeal the verdict, but none is expected.

Experts on Sweden's far right say Hogstrom founded and led the Swedish neo-Nazi group National Socialist Front in the 1990s. However, he left the organization in 1999 after two of its members were convicted of a high-profile police murder, and became an active opponent of the extreme right, according to Expo, a research foundation.

Prosecutor Robert Parys said the main motive of the group of six that carried out the theft was financial.

Hogstrom maintains that another Swedish man talked him into organizing the heist, but Polish prosecutors have been unable to find evidence to support his claim, Parys said.

Hogstrom was detained in Sweden on Feb. 11 on a European arrest warrant.

Judge Jaroslaw Gaberle also approved plea deals Thursday for two Polish men, Marcin Auguscinski and Andrzej Strychalski. They were convicted of involvement in stealing the sign and given sentences of 2 1/2 years and two years and four months respectively.

Three other Poles involved in the case were convicted of secondary roles in the theft and given prison terms in March.

"For Holocaust survivors, the theft at Auschwitz was not just about stealing a sign but about stealing our collective memory and pain," the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said in an e-mailed statement.

"We commend Poland for not allowing this to happen," the group added, calling the court ruling an act of "historic justice."

The theft occurred in the night on Dec. 17 or 18, 2009. Acting on tip-offs, police tracked down the sign less than three days after it was stolen, finding it cut into three pieces and hidden in a forest in northern Poland.

The cynical slogan on the sign at the camp's entrance has become a potent symbol of Nazi Germany's atrocities during World War II and the Holocaust.

Between 1940 and 1945 more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau or died of starvation, disease and hard labor at the camp, which Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland.

The sign was replaced by a replica after the theft.

Conservation experts at the Auschwitz memorial are preparing to reassemble the damaged original, spokesman Bartosz Bartyzel said, but it will not be ready in time for the 66th anniversary of the camp's liberation on Jan. 27.