Demjanjuk charged in 29,000 murders

German prosecutors charge former SS guard with accessory to killings at Nazis' Sobibor death camp.

demjanjuk 88 (photo credit: )
demjanjuk 88
(photo credit: )
Almost 16 years after Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction and life sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Treblinka death camp, German prosecutors on Wednesday charged retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk with more than 29,000 counts of accessory to murder during his time as a guard at the Nazis' Sobibor death camp, and will seek his extradition from the US. Demjanjuk is accused of participating in the murders while he was a guard at the Nazi camp in occupied Poland between March and September 1943. "In this capacity, he participated in the accessory to murder of at least 29,000 people of the Jewish faith," Munich prosecutors said in a statement. "We're on our way to a victory for justice today," Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said from Jerusalem. "The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and in a case like this, of a mass murderer who shares responsibility for the annihilation of so many innocent victims, it is especially important that he be brought to trial as quickly as possible, while justice can still be achieved," Zuroff said. "We hope that the process can be expedited to ensure that this Holocaust perpetrator will finally be appropriately punished." The 88-year-old Demjanjuk, who lives in a Cleveland suburb, denies involvement. Demjanjuk emigrated to the US in 1952 and gained citizenship in 1958. A native of what is now Ukraine, Demjanjuk has denied ever serving the Nazis and said his fear of being sent back to the Soviet Union prompted him to falsely assert on his US visa application that he was a farmer in Poland during the war. He has said he served in the Soviet army and became a prisoner of war when he was captured by Germany in 1942. The Federal Court of Justice, Germany's top criminal court, ruled in December that Demjanjuk could be prosecuted in Germany. The judges instructed the Munich Regional Court to take over the case, because Demjanjuk had lived in various Bavarian cities between 1945 and 1951. Germany's Central Unit For the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, based in Ludwigsburg, had probed Demjanjuk for several years and suggested he should be charged. Demjanjuk was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited to Israel in 1986, when the US Justice Department believed he was the sadistic Nazi guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" from Treblinka. Eighteen survivors, five of whom testified at his trial, identified him as a guard at the camp, where an estimated 850,000 prisoners died. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988. That conviction and death sentence were overturned by the Supreme Court in August 1993 after it received newly available evidence from Soviet archives that another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko, was "Ivan the Terrible." Still, the court found that Demjanjuk had served as one of a group of SS guards "whose purpose was murder and whose objective was genocide," ruling that he had been at an SS training camp in Trawniki, Poland, at the Flossenberg and Regensburg concentration camps, and at Sobibor, where 250,000 people were killed. However, since he had been indicted, and convicted, primarily as "Ivan the Terrible," the court ruled, he would have to be given the chance to defend himself afresh if new charges were filed against him. Given that he had already spent seven years in jail, the court decided that the most reasonable course of action was an acquital. Although Demjanjuk's US citizenship was restored in 1998, the US Justice Department renewed its case, insisting he had been a Nazi guard and thus could be deported for falsifying information on his entry and citizenship applications in the 1950s. A December 2005 US court ruling determined that he could be deported to his native Ukraine or to Germany or Poland, but Demjanjuk spent several years challenging that ruling. Last year, the US Supreme Court chose not to consider Demjanjuk's appeal against deportation, clearing the way for the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which oversees cases against former Nazis, to seek his removal from the United States. Now, the Munich prosecutor's office, which is handling the case because Demjanjuk spent time at a refugee camp in the area after the war, said it was working on the extradition request with the German government. By charging Demjanjuk, "Bavaria sent a very powerful message about the necessity of pursuing Holocaust perpetrators and holding them accountable for their crimes - a message which continues to be timely and important throughout the world even, and perhaps especially, today," said Zuroff. "Today the major problem we face is the lack of political will in certain countries to prosecute Nazi war criminals. That's why today's decision in Germany is so important." Germany lifted its statute of limitation for murder in 1979, allowing prosecution of Nazi criminals in its courts to continue until today. Murder and genocide are the only crimes under German law with no applicable statute of limitation, which normally would bar prosecution after a certain period of time. Munich prosecutors credited help from the US Office of Special investigations in clarifying the validity of Nazi-era identity papers in enabling them to file charges against Demjanjuk. They said Demjanjuk will be formally charged before a judge once he is extradited to Germany. The Associated Press, Bloomberg and JTA contributed to this report.