Slander Conviction in Land Fight
Apr. 29, 2002
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POTSDAM, Germany (AP) _ An American heir to a Jewish family battling to regain land sold during the Nazi era was found guilty of slander and fined Monday for accusing judges of anti-Semitism and deliberately holding up a settlement.
The state administrative court in Potsdam fined Peter Sonnenthal $12,200 for accusing the judges of ``anti-Semitic delaying tactics'' in a German television interview a year ago.
Heirs to the wealthy Sabersky family, which fled during the 1930s in the face of increasing Nazi pressure, have been trying for more than a decade to recover some 210 acres in a leafy neighborhood in the Berlin suburb of Teltow.
The state restitution office returned about one-sixth of the plots to the family late last year after a federal court ordered new hearings in 1999. Court sessions are to resume in June on claims previously denied by the office on the grounds there was insufficient evidence to prove the land was sold under duress and below fair market price.
On Monday, Judge Kerstin Devriel acknowledged Sonnenthal's exasperation at the long-winded legal process, but said he had overstepped the mark in his criticism of the judges, who have argued that a busy court schedule had pushed back the case and denied discriminating against him.
``Not everyone can say whatever they want, wherever they want,'' Devriel said.
Sonnenthal, who in court defended his right to speak out about the fate of his family and argued his remarks were covered by German free-speech laws, said he would appeal.
``This will not stand,'' the 48-year-old Denver lawyer told reporters after the ruling. ``I believe I'm being intimidated, and the delays continue.''
The still unresolved claims mostly concern land sold before the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, a turning point in Nazi intimidation of Jews that presaged the Holocaust.
The state court in Potsdam is looking again at whether those sales were made under duress, whether the price was fair and whether the family received the proceeds.
The Sabersky family bought the land, then a large farm, in 1878 and were drawing up plans to develop part of it along a canal where other wealthy Berliners had started building country homes.
But when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and started banning Jews from professions _ including farming _ the family hired a Nazi real-estate broker to begin selling off the entire property.
For decades, the family could not seek restitution because the land was in communist East Germany. But after German reunification in 1990, they sought to regain title to the land, now worth an estimated $225 million as prime development land outside the capital.