John Demjanjuk convicted then freed by German court

91-year-old sentenced to 5 years but let out due to age; Demjanjuk convicted for killing 27,900 as guard at death camp Sobibor.

May 13, 2011 00:51
Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk

John Demjanjuk 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Lukas Barth/Pool)

BERLIN – A court in Munich on Thursday convicted John Demjanjuk, 91, of assisting in the murder of at least 27,900 Jews as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, but then immediately released him pending an appeal against his conviction and five-year sentence.

Legal proceedings against Demjanjuk, a former Ohio autoworker who was born in Ukraine, have unfolded in Israel, the United States and Germany over a three-decade period, culminating in Thursday’s verdict and sentence. The appeal procedure may now take another year.

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Pending an appeal from Demjanjuk’s attorney, Ulrich Busch, and the court’s statement that there was no compelling reason to keep him in jail until the sentence could be legally imposed, Judge Ralph Alt declared, “The defendant is released.”

Demjanjuk is not deemed at risk of fleeing Germany because of his age and the fact that he is stateless, Alt said.

The five-year sentence cannot be implemented until the appeal process is exhausted.

In a signal that Demjanjuk may not serve the entire term, or even any of it, even if his appeal fails, Alt said that an incarceration period of five years is “not commensurate” with such an elderly defendant.

Demjanjuk has been in German jail for two years.

“It doesn’t seem likely that Demjanjuk will actually serve any more time in the end. The appeal will take at least a year and at that time his health may not allow putting him in prison,” Alt told journalists after the court ruling.

Demjanjuk cannot return to the United States because the US government stripped him of his citizenship in 2002.

Demjanjuk showed no reaction in court – not when Alt delivered the verdict and sentence, and not when the judge said he would be released.

Alt said non-German guards played an important role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite only 20 German SS officers being there.

“He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp,” Alt said.

Jewish organizations, a leading Jewish attorney in Germany, Holocaust survivors and their family members initially welcomed the guilty verdict, but news about Demjanjuk’s release triggered sharp criticism.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Jerusalem Post, “We were very pleased with verdict until he was released. It is totally inappropriate and an insult to the victims. It is totally unacceptable to release someone who was convicted for the murder of at least 30,000 people.”

Zuroff said that the Ukrainian community in Munich was set to “host him.”

According to Zuroff, widely considered to be the world’s leading hunter of Nazis, the Demjanjuk case is the second case within 24 hours in which “the German legal system failed to respond appropriately to cases related to Holocaust crimes.”

The other case was that of Klaas Carel Faber, who is living in Bavaria and was convicted in a court in the Netherlands. On Wednesday, Germany refused to extradite him. Faber is the No. 3 most wanted Nazi on the Simon Wiesenthal Center list, and the Dutch court had convicted him as a Nazi collaborator in the Netherlands who helped murder 22 people.

Zuroff and the Wiesenthal Center had encouraged the German authorities to prosecute Demjanjuk. He said on Thursday that the Israeli prosecutors, the Office of Special Prosecution in the United States and the German prosecutors “deserve the credit” for the conviction.

Nathan Gelbart, a member of the Berlin Jewish community and a prominent attorney, told the Post that the Demjanjuk trial and verdict constituted an “important sign that some people here care for those people who survived the concentration camps and their heirs. One reason to punish is for the satisfaction of the victims and justice.”

Gelbart noted that “only a handful of Nazi criminals have been put on trial in this country.” He said “The Ministry of Justice did not make overwhelming efforts to follow or pursue extradition” in cases involving Nazis, citing Germany’s refusal to push the Syrian regime to release Austrian Nazi Alois Brunner, who fled to Syria after the war, and who had helped Adolf Eichmann carry out the destruction of European Jewry.

Germany “knew where he was. And they did not pursue him in Syria,” Gelbart said.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, issued a statement, saying “There must never be impunity or closure for those who were involved in mass murder and genocide, irrespective of their age.”

He continued that “John Demjanjuk was one of many perpetrators, and there are still a few old men out there who have the blood of innocent Shoah victims on their hands. The World Jewish Congress will continue to press for them to be tried before the courts of law.”

Stephan J. Kramer, secretarygeneral of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the verdict was “not revenge but the execution of justice, even 65 years later.”

Vera Dejong, whose family were Sobibor victims, said she was “very much relieved that I don’t have to have all the stress every time I have to come and sit here and hear all the horrible things that happened during the war and to my family.”

Demjanjuk has claimed he was drafted into the Soviet army in 1941, and then taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans.

His son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said in an e-mail before the verdict that his father was a victim of the Nazis and of post-war Germany.

“While those who refuse to accept that reality may take satisfaction from this event, nothing the Munich court can do will atone for the suffering Germany has perpetrated upon him to this day,” he said.

Prosecutors had faced several hurdles in proving Demjanjuk’s guilt, with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime documents, notably a Nazi ID card that defense attorneys said was a fake made by the Soviets.

Guards at Nazi death camps such as Sobibor were essential to the mass killing of Jews because extermination was the focus of such facilities, prosecutors said.

Defense attorney Busch told the court that even if Demjanjuk did become a prison guard, he did so only because as a prisoner of war he would otherwise have either been shot by the Nazis or died of starvation.

Reuters and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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