Substantial compensation and the reputation of a U.S. industry icon may hinge on the decision of a Swiss judge, due March 20, to either accept or reject requests to proceed with a lawsuit against IBM.
Last month, the 7th Chamber of the First Instance Court in Geneva formally registered a preliminary hearing in the year-old process.
When the parties meet in just over three weeks, the Gypsy International Recognition and Compensation Action (GIRCA) group will ask the judge to accept two motions, said Henri-Philippe Sambuc, a lawyer representing GIRCA. "We will ask the court to accept that Geneva is a place of jurisdiction and that there are no statutory time limitations on crimes against humanity," he said. "The judge must accept both of our pleas for the process to go ahead."
Sambuc, who commissioned a group to research IBM's links to Geneva and Nazi Germany, claims to have sufficient arguments for the case to be tried in Switzerland. "Our research has revealed traces of IBM's European headquarters in Geneva from 1936 to 1956," he said.
As for collaboration with Nazi Germany, Sambuc points to claims published in the book "IBM and the Holocaust; The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation" by Edwin Black. The author argues that IBM and its subsidiaries provided the punch-card data-processing systems, known as Hollerith machines, that allowed Nazis to categorize and track concentration camp victims and that the U.S. company was aware of how its equipment was being used.
Around 600,000 Gypsies, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, are believed to have been killed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
"IBM was fully informed about the Holocaust because they knew the location of the machines they leased to the Nazis," said May Bittel, president of GIRCA. "Their engineers had to go to the concentration camps to repair and maintain the equipment."
IBM isn't saying much before the March 20 hearing. "We don't comment pending litigation," said Brain Doyle, a spokesman for IBM. "However, we feel the case is without merit."
According to Sambuc, the judge will make a decision on the motions filed by GIRCA and IBM by April or May. If GIRCA's motions are rejected, Sambuc said the group will appeal to the next higher court, the High Swiss Federal Court.
Whether GIRCA would take its case to the U.S. in the case of a defeat before Swiss courts appears doubtful. "I wouldn't say no to such a move," Bittel said, "but everything over there is very different."