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Nazi war criminal reportedly died in a Syrian dungeon

The fate of Alois Brunner, blamed for the death of 130,000, has always been a mystery

Alois Brunner: The Austrian Nazi, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 130,000 Jews, died locked up in a squalid Damascus basement, a French magazine has reported. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A Nazi war criminal, believed responsible for the deaths of 130,000 European Jews during the second World War, died in a dungeon cell near the presidential palace in Damascus in late 2001 at the age of 89, the French quarterly review XXI revealed in its winter issue this week.

Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” wrote in his memoirs that Alois Brunner “was my best man”. Brunner organised the deportation of 56,000 Jews from Vienna, 43,000 from Salonica, 14,000 from Slovakia and 23,500 from France to Auschwitz.

Brunner, who was originally from Austria, was twice convicted of war crimes in absentia in Paris, in 1954 and in March 2001. As XXI’s investigation makes clear, he was still alive when his second trial took place. His fate had remained a mystery.

Though Brunner’s presence in Damascus was for decades an open secret, he was protected and then imprisoned, by the late dictator Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad. The Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, and Serge Klarsfeld, now 81, led futile searches for him.

Klarsfeld was a boy when Brunner came to his family’s apartment in Nice in September 1943. While he, his mother and sister hid, they heard Brunner arrest their father and husband, who died at Auschwitz.

When a journalist from XXI told Klarsfeld of its investigation, the first question he asked was whether Brunner had suffered.

House arrest

In 1989, facing international pressure for Brunner’s extradition and fears of an Israeli raid to capture or kill him, the Assad regime placed the war criminal under house arrest in his fourth floor apartment in the affluent district of Abu Rumaneh.

Brunner had lost an eye and three fingers from letter-bombings in 1961 and 1980. “He became hysterical from being locked up,” Mohamed Abdul Rahman al-Hammadeh, who was part of a rotating unit of 22 guards, told journalist Hedi Aouidj. Hammadeh joined the Syrian rebellion and now lives in Jordan.

“He insulted Hafez al-Assad, the intelligence services,” Hammadeh recalled. “We reported back and he’d end up in a cell at Mohajerin [intelligence headquarters] and after a few days we’d take him back to the apartment.”

Brunner confided in the guard: “He told me Saddam Hussein was a great man, the only one capable of destroying Israel. ” He regretted not having annihilated all Jews, but boasted of having killed 25,000 Jews from France.

In a 1998 interview with French television, Hafez al-Assad denied Brunner’s presence. “If you know where he is, I’ll send someone there with you on the spot,” he said.

About that time, Brunner was moved to a one-room basement cell, which he did not leave for the rest of his life. His imprisonment continued after Bashar came to power in 2000.

“He was very tired, very ill. He suffered and he screamed a lot. Everyone heard him,” another former guard, identified only as Omar, said. “The chief guard gave him food, a soldier’s ration of one egg or a one potato . . . He also laughed very loudly. He banged his head on the walls . . . He had a skin disease because of the lack of sunlight and fresh air . . . He couldn’t even wash himself. You wouldn’t keep an animal in such a place.”

Nazi ratlines

After the second World War, Brunner was assisted by one of the “ratlines,” escape routes for Nazis set up with the acquiescence of the Vatican and US intelligence. Other beneficiaries included Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, Josef Mengele and Andrija Artukovic, the Croatian war criminal who stayed with his family in Ireland on his way to the US. (The great Irish essayist Hubert Butler recounted Artukovic’s story in Balkan Essays, published by Irish Pages Press.)

In 1956, Brunner reached Damascus, where he was known as Georg Fischer or Abu Hossein. After Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1971, Brunner helped him establish the regime’s intricate system of compartimentalised Mukhabarat agencies. He is said to have trained the most infamous intelligence chiefs, including Ali Haidar, Ali Douba, Mustafa Tlass and Shafiq al-Fayad.

Brunner is also believed to have designed the “German chair”, a Syrian torture device that breaks the back of detainees. His legacy remains. “I am struck by the rigour with which the Mukhabarat continue, despite the war, to arrest people, torture, draw up reports, number the bodies,” said Nadim Houry, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In the fridge

A former high-ranking Syrian official explained to XXI how Brunner became the pawn of his Syrian protectors.

“Brunner was a card in the hand of the regime,” he said. “You don’t know in advance what purpose a card will serve, so you put the person in the fridge. Only dictatorships put people in the fridge. And one day, you drop them because you don’t need them anymore or they cost too much.”

Brunner was given a Muslim burial, in secret, at night in the Al-Affif cemetery in Damascus.