On July 29, 1993, the Supreme Court freed previously-convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk, on the grounds that there was "reasonable doubt" he was Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously sadistic prison guard who operated the gas chambers at the Treblinka extermination camp. The ruling followed Demjanjuk's appeal, after the lower court in 1988 found him guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950 and sentenced him to death by hanging. The verdict marked the closure of one episode of a three-decade-long series of legal proceedings surrounding the involvement of the Ukrainian-born émigré in World War II.
In 1993, the Supreme Court, sitting as an expanded five-judge panel, overturned the lower court’s decision. Justices Aharon Barak, Menachem Elon, Meir Shamgar, Eliezer Goldberg and Avraham Halima based the verdict, in part, on new evidence that became available after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The "reasonable doubt" was founded upon the testimony given to KGB courts after the war by 33 Wachmaenner auxiliary SS guards, who all mentioned another man, Ivan Marchenko, as having operated the Treblinka gas chambers. This evidence had not been available to the lower court and only came to light during the appeal.
Then-Supreme Court president Shamgar said the court "admitted these testimonies by the most lenient application of the law and procedure. When they came before us, doubt began to gnaw at our judicial conscience; perhaps the appellant was not 'Ivan the Terrible' of Treblinka. By virtue of this gnawing - whose nature we knew, but not the meaning - we restrained ourselves from convicting the appellant of the horrors of Treblinka."
He added that this was done despite the fact that Demjanjuk's alibi of having been in a German prisoner-of-war camp during the crucial months when Treblinka operated had been found untrue.
Shamgar concluded his reading of the court decision by saying: "Auxiliary SS guard Ivan Demjanjuk has been acquitted by us, because of doubt, of the terrible charges attributed to 'Ivan the Terrible' of Treblinka. This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and the mind, but have only what their eyes see and read. The matter is closed - but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge."
Shamgar said that though the court had found evidence that Demjanjuk served a prison guard in at least two other Nazi death camps, Sobibor and Flossenbuerg , Demjanjuk could not be convicted because he had not been given a proper opportunity to defend himself on that charge.
The acquittal outraged Holocaust survivors, Jews and Israelis. The World Federation of Jewish Fighters, partisans, camp inmates and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors appealed to then-attorney-general Yosef Harish to institute legal proceedings against Demjanjuk for crimes against the Jewish people. However, Harish decided not to retry him.
The US Justice Department, which had previously stripped Demjanjuk of his US citizenship, then restored it and repatriated him to Ohio. The US in 1977 had begun the process of revoking Demjanjuk’s citizenship under the premise that he lied in his immigration and naturalization process about his role in the Nazi death camps. Identified in a photo lineup by Holocaust survivors as the notorious Ivan, a US judge ruled that he had in fact hidden his involvement in the WWII German death machine, leading to his extradition to Israel five years later. From 1993, he lived in the US for several years, but legal proceedings for his involvement in World War II continued, and the US Justice Department restarted proceedings to revoke his citizenship in 1999.
It took another five years before a US court ruled he could be stripped of his citizenship for the second time and yet another five years before efforts to have him tried in Germany were eventually successful. After a decade of exhausted appeals, Demjanjuk was extradited to Munich in May of 2009 and charged with 28,060 counts of accessory to murder.
Demjanjuk attended the 18 months of court proceedings in Munich in a wheelchair and sometimes while lying down. Prosecutors – working on the case for more than 60 years since the war’s end – faced several hurdles in proving his guilt, with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime documents, namely a Nazi ID card indicating he had worked at Sobibor.
In May 2011, the Munich court convicted Demjanjuk, at age 91, of assisting in the murder of at least 27,900 Jews as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Demjanjuk denied the charges against him but otherwise did not speak at his trial. He was sentenced to five years in prison, however, the court immediately released him pending appeal, due to his age.
The appeal procedures were expected to take up to a year, but on March 17, 2012, Demjanjuk died at a care home south of Munich. He died a free man, but a man in limbo, stateless and awaiting the verdict of his appeal.
Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal center told The Jerusalem Post at the time, "we were very pleased with verdict until he was released. It is totally inappropriate and an insult to the victims.” Following the news of Demjanjuk's death, Zuroff, who has spent years tracking down perpetrators of atrocities against Jews during the Holocaust, said he felt indifferent toward news of Demjanjuk’s death. His only regret was that the former Nazi guard died in an old age home and not behind bars.
But Zuroff's ongoing battle to bring Nazi criminals to justice was far from over. Late last year, as Demjanjuk's fate was still being decided, Zuroff traced Laszlo Csatary - said to be the world's most wanted living Nazi - to a suburb of Budapest. Just two weeks ago, police in Hungary arrested the 95-year-old, and charged him with war crimes related to the deportation of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz when he was the police chief of Kosice during World War II.
The advanced age and deteriorated health of the few remaining Nazi war criminals has sparked debate over the determination of Nazi hunters to bring them to justice for crimes they allegedly committed over 60 years ago. To this Zuroff responds, “the passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers. The individuals in question are the last people on earth who deserve any empathy, since they had no mercy whatsoever for their helpless victims."
Michael-Omer Man, Gil Shefler, Benjamin Weinthal, Reuters and The Jerusalem Post’s archives contributed to this report.