(March 23) -- A German court has sentenced an 88-year-old former Nazi hitman to life in prison for murdering three Dutch civilians during World War II.
Heinrich Boere is No. 6 on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted Nazis. He was part of the "Silbertanne" death squad -- a unit of largely Dutch SS volunteers tasked with killing their countrymen.
His trial, which began in October, capped more than six decades of efforts to bring him to justice in what's probably one of the last war crimes trials of surviving former Nazis. The court in Aachen this morning handed down the maximum sentence, life in prison, 66 years after Boere's crimes took place.
The former Waffen SS member admitted to killing a bicycle shop owner, a pharmacist and a member of the resistance movement in the Netherlands in 1944, but said he had no choice but to comply with his superiors' orders. "As a simple soldier, I learned to carry out orders," Boere testified in December. "And I knew that if I didn't carry out my orders I would be breaking my oath and would be shot myself."
Prosecutors said Boere was a willing participant who joined the SS after Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. In testimony, he described being inspired as an 18-year-old after seeing a recruitment poster signed by Heinrich Himmler.
He also testified to how he and another SS man wore civilian clothes during unannounced visits to the homes of people believed to oppose the Nazis. After asking them to confirm their identities, the two SS men shot them point blank with silenced pistols.
Boere was born in Germany to a Dutch father and German mother, and moved to the Netherlands as an infant. He volunteered for the SS in 1940 and fought on the Eastern Front before returning to Holland in 1943. At the end of World War II, he was captured and held in several prisoner of war camps before escaping in 1947.
In 1954, Boere fled to Germany and worked there as a coal miner until the mid-1970s. A court in the Netherlands sentenced him to death in absentia in 1949, and his penalty was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Still, he avoided jail time because he holds dual nationality. One German court refused to extradite him, and another refused to force him to serve his Dutch sentence in a German prison because he was absent from his trial.
Since the Nuremberg trials after World War II, where several top Nazi officials were sentenced to death, German authorities have examined more than 25,000 war crimes cases, but the majority have never reached court. Boere's trial is part of a recent flurry of arrests as suspected war criminals age into their 90s and pressure builds to bring them to justice while they are still alive.
The most high-profile of recent Nazi trials is that of John Demjanjuk, whose trial began in Munich in November. He is charged with assisting in the murder of 27,900 people at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where prosecutors say he was a guard.
Boere is now wheelchair-bound and lives in a nursing home near the German town where he was born 88 years ago. During his trial, he spoke openly of the murders. "At no point did I feel like I was committing a crime," he said. "Now I see things from a different perspective."