Court rules Gypsies can sue IBM over Nazis claims

IBM Corp. may still need to defend itself in a Swiss court against allegations that the company's punch-card machines helped World War II Nazis commit genocide more effectively.

Earlier this week, the Geneva Court of Appeal overruled the city's First Instance Court, which a year ago dropped a case brought against Big Blue by a group representing Gypsy victims of the Holocaust, according to the group's lawyer Henri-Philippe Sambuc.

The group, called the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action (GIRCA), is seeking up to US$12 billion in collective damages.

Sambuc referred to the court ruling as "very significant" because it now establishes Geneva as a place of jurisdiction. He called IBM's claims of having no substantial operations in the Swiss city "a lie."

The Armonk, New York, company has 30 days to appeal the decision to the next highest judicial level, the Swiss Federal High Court, according to Sambuc.

A spokesman for IBM said the company is "studying the decision" but declined further comment.

In its ruling, the appeals court cited a "significant" body of evidence showing that IBM had a major office in Geneva and that this office could have been aware it was assisting criminal acts of the Nazis. A year earlier, the lower First Instance Court said the U.S. computer company had only a small office in the city, and decided not to hear the case.

From the start, GIRCA has argued that IBM had a non-registered operation in Geneva, called International Business Machines Corporation New York, European Headquarters, and that this organization is well documented in the book "IBM and the Holocaust; The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation" by Edwin Black.

In his book, Black said that IBM -- through its German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (Dehomag) -- provided the punch-card data processing systems that allowed Nazis to categorize and track concentration camp victims, who were mostly Jews, and that the U.S. company was aware of how its equipment was being used.

In addition to 6 million Jews, the Nazis are believed to have killed around 600,000 Gypsies, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, according to Sambuc. Despite settlements in Germany and Switzerland involving surviving victims of the Holocaust and their descendants, Gypsies have been largely excluded from compensation plans and other funds.

Whether these surviving victims will see any compensation in their lifetime remains unclear, however. Even though GIRCA has successfully appealed the jurisdiction decision, IBM could try to overrule it in the next higher court.

Another important question is whether the case is subject to any statutory time limitations after which rights cannot be enforced by legal action or offenses punished.

Sambuc sees no such statutory time limitations for crimes against humanity provided under international law or in any of the legal decisions reached during the Nuremburg war trials. "It will be up to the Geneva First Instance Court to decide on this," he said. "We expect a decision later in the year."

Substantial compensation and the image of a U.S. industry icon may hinge on that decision.

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