Nazi guard Ivan Demjanjuk charged

German Prosecution says 89-year-old accessory to murder of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor death camp.

Demjanjuk hearing 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Demjanjuk hearing 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
John Demjanjuk's legal saga neared its final chapter on Monday as prosecutors set the stage for one of Germany's highest-profile war crime trials in years - charging the retired auto worker from Cleveland for involvement in the murder of nearly 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor extermination camp in 1943. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Anton Winkler, a spokesman for the Munich prosecutor, told The Jerusalem Post that Demjanjuk, 89, had been "formally charged with being an accessory to murder of 27,900 Jews." The zigzagging legal process appears to be entering its final phase. Winkler said the "indictment has been submitted" to the Munich state court, and the court must decide if the indictment is in order. In May, the United States extradited Demjanjuk to Munich. Prosecutors there had issued an arrest warrant for him because he lived in Bavaria after World War II. Demjanjuk's attorney, Günther Maull, told the Post that based on "statistical" experience with criminal cases, he does not anticipate a trial beginning before late September. "It is an important milestone in bringing Demjanjuk to justice," Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office and responsible for tracking down Nazi war criminals, told the Post. Zuroff said the prosecution sends "a message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators." "Elderly age" should not be an "obstacle to prosecution," Zuroff said. "Society owes the 27,900 victims, every one of them, a honest effort to find out who turned them into victims and to hold those accountable" for the crimes, he said. When asked if Demjanjuk is guilty, Zuroff said, "I have no doubt he is guilty. I have been following the case for 30 years." Asked about Zuroff's statement, Maull, the attorney for Demjanjuk, said, "Mr. Zuroff can have an opinion. I can have an opinion." Pressed on whether Demjanjuk participated in the mass murder of Jews, Maull said, "I have nothing to say." Israel convicted Demjanjuk in 1988 and sentenced him to death on the charge that he was the brutal "Ivan the Terrible" guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. But Soviet archives produced material revealing that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible. The Supreme Court in Jerusalem overruled the conviction in 1993, and Demjanjuk regained his US citizenship. Zuroff on Monday said that the question before the Israeli court - during the appeal process after the new evidence which cast doubt on his identity came to light - was "whether he was Ivan the Terrible or another terrible Ivan." According to Zuroff, "It is forgotten that he was convicted in Israel of working in the "service of a Nazi organization," and "participated in the Final Solution." The head of the 120,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, who survived the Holocaust as a young girl in Bavaria, had welcomed - in a May statement - "the extradition of Demjanjuk" to face trial for "alleged war crimes during the National Socialist" period. "For survivors of the Shoah, it is intolerable to see how a suspected Nazi war criminal, who knew no mercy for his victims, seeks sympathy and compares his deportation to torture," Knobloch wrote. For Germany, the decision to try Demjanjuk was swift: formal charges relating to his alleged time as a Sobibor guard in 1943 were filed just two months after the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk landed in the country after a lengthy but fruitless court battle to avoid deportation from the US. Filing charges typically takes several months in Germany. Monday's move underlined authorities' determination not to draw a line on attempts to exact justice for Nazi-era atrocities. The Munich State Court must now decide whether to accept the charges - typically a formality - and set a date for the trial. Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., described the charges as "a farce" and raised anew concerns over whether the 89-year-old's frail health would allow him a fair trial. "As long as my father remains alive, we will defend his innocence as he has never hurt anyone anywhere," he told The Associated Press in an e-mail. "They have hurried to justify the deportation and the violation of his legal and human rights with sensational charges, but it is all a farce and could never withstand the test of litigation." Demjanjuk Jr. said his father is suffering from an incurable leukemic bone marrow disease. However, doctors earlier this month determined that Demjanjuk was fit to stand trial so long as court hearings do not exceed two 90-minute sessions per day. He has been in custody in Munich since his arrival on May 12. Elderly, frail Nazi suspects with health problems have stood trial in the past: In 2001, Anton Malloth, an 89-year-old former guard at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in then-occupied Czechoslovakia, sat through his trial in Munich in a wheelchair, connected to an IV drip. He was sentenced to life in prison for beating a Jewish inmate to death, and died a year later. Legal wrangling over Demjanjuk and his alleged role in the Nazi death machine goes back to the 1970s. Demjanjuk, who became a US citizen after the war, had his citizenship revoked in 1981 after the US Justice Department alleged that he hid his past as "Ivan the Terrible," a guard at Treblinka. Demjanjuk's US citizenship was restored but again revoked in 2002, based on fresh Justice Department evidence showing he concealed his service at Sobibor and other German death and forced-labor camps from immigration officials. A US immigration judge ruled in 2005 he could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine. The case moved a decisive step forward when Munich prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him in March. Demjanjuk maintains that he was a Red Army soldier who spent the time as a prisoner of war and never hurt anyone. But Nazi-era documents obtained by US justice authorities and shared with German prosecutors include a photo ID identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor and saying he was trained at an SS facility for Nazi guards at Trawniki, also in German-occupied Poland. US and German experts have declared the ID genuine. In their March arrest warrant, prosecutors accused Demjanjuk of being an accessory to murder in 29,000 cases, representing the number of people who arrived at Sobibor while he was alleged to be a camp guard. Some 250,000 people died in the camp's gas chamber from when it opened in 1942 until it was razed to the ground at the orders of SS chief Heinrich Himmler after an uprising 18 months later. Other cases of alleged Nazi war criminals are also working their way through the German legal system. In Munich, 90-year-old former German army lieutenant Josef Scheungraber is being tried on charges that he ordered the killings of 14 Italian civilians in 1944. And last week, judges in western Germany ruled that 88-year-old Heinrich Boere, accused of murdering three Dutch civilians after volunteering for a Dutch Waffen-SS unit, will go to court after prolonged wrangling over whether he is fit for trial. "This isn't about revenge. It's not about tormenting an old man - it's about justice, it's about determining guilt," Dieter Graumann, vice president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, said of Demjanjuk's case. More important than whether Demjanjuk ultimately is sentenced to prison time is "that the guilt is determined, that it's discussed," Graumann said. "Now, at a time when there are so many Holocaust deniers... it's all the more important that in such a trial it's made clear once again what happened, what took place," he said. AP contributed to this report.