Tue Jun 22, 2004 01:14 PM ET
By Thomas Atkins
GENEVA (Reuters) - A Swiss court has cleared the way for a group of gypsies to sue computer giant IBM for allegedly helping Nazi slaughter campaigns during World War II, the plaintiffs' lawyer said on Tuesday. Lawyer Henri-Philippe Sambuc said an appeals court had overturned an earlier lower court ruling that Geneva had no jurisdiction to hear the test case that could eventually lead to a wider $12 billion claim against IBM.
The case claims that IBM facilitated the mass slaughter of gypsies by knowingly allowing Nazi Germany to use its punch-card Hollerith tabulating machines -- the mainframe computer of its era -- to track and identify victims.
IBM had its European headquarters in Geneva during World War II.
"There are a great number of elements showing that IBM was an accomplice with the Nazis," Sambuc told Reuters by telephone.
Sambuc said the five plaintiffs, all of whom lost family members in death camps in the 1939-1945 period when Nazis killed an estimated six million Jews and 600,000 gypsies in Europe, would claim $20,000 each from IBM for the alleged wrongdoing.
Based on the outcome, Sambuc said he aims to proceed in Swiss courts with a claim representing a broader gypsy victim group and seeking damages of $12 billion.
"This is the first step in a global strategy. We will have a second litigation, if we win, in a couple of years and that will be done on behalf of the 600,000 gypsies killed," he said.
IBM spokesman John Bukovinsky said the company had not had time to review the appeals decision and declined to comment.
Sambuc launched the case in 2001.
In the same year, investigative reporter Irwin Black published a book called "IBM and the Holocaust" claiming that IBM complied in the Nazi organization of ethnic slaughter in wartime Poland and that German bureaucrats used IBM machinery to improve the efficiency of the Holocaust.
At that time, IBM said that it had lost control of its German subsidy Dehomag before the war began in 1939.
Historians have known for decades about the Nazi use of Hollerith tabulators. IBM has contributed $3 million to a German fund to compensate the victims of World War II slave labor.