John Demjanjuk a retired United States autoworker has been found guilty of thousands of counts of being an accessory to murder at a Nazi death camp and sentenced today to 5 years in prison, a groundbreaking verdict that concluded one chapter in a decades-long legal fight.The judges however did allow Demjanjuk to go free temporarily while his appeal is processed, on the grounds that they did not beleive the 91 year old posed much of a flight risk.
Demjanjuk was found guilty of 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder, one for each person who was killed during the time he is said to have been a Nazi guard at the Sobibor camp in Poland while it was occupied by Germany. Presiding Judge Ralph Alt said the 91-year-old was a piece of the Nazis’ “machinery of destruction.” “The court is convinced that the defendant … served as a guard at Sobibor from 27 March 1943 to mid-September 1943,” Alt said, closing a trial that lasted nearly 18 months.
Demjanjuk showed no reaction to the verdict as he sat in a wheelchair in front of the judges. He’s denied the accusations and turned down the chance to make a final statement to the court. Charges of accessory to murder carry a maximum term of fifteen years in Germany, which doesn’t allow for consecutive sentences for multiple counts of the same crime.
There was no evidence that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime. The criminal prosecution was based on the possibility that if Demjanjuk was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing. It was the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts. Thomas Walther, who led the probe that prompted Germany to prosecute Demjanjuk, said before the verdict that other low-ranking Nazi helpers could now face prosecution.
Integral to the prosecution’s case was an SS idenification card that allegedly shows a photo of a young Demjanjuk, and indicates he trained at the SS Trawniki camp and was posted to Sobibor. Though court experts said the card appears genuine, Demjanjuk’s defense team maintains it is a fake created by the Soviet KGB.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations also has said the card is genuine, but documents unearthed by The Associated Press indicate that the FBI at one time had doubts similar to those aired by Demjanjuk’s defense about the evidence – though the material was never turned over to them. Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship and has been in custody in Germany since his deportation two years ago.
In the eighties, Demjanjuk stood trial in Israel after he was accused of being the notoriously brutal guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was convicted, sentenced to death – then freed when an Israeli court overturned the ruling, saying the evidence showed he was the victim of mistaken identity.
Demjanjuk maintains he was a victim of the Nazis – first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a POW under brutal conditions before joining the Vlasov Army, a force of anti-communist Soviet POWs and others that was formed to fight with the Germans against the Soviets in the final months of the war. Prosecutors said that after his capture, the evidence shows Demjanjuk agreed to serve the German SS and was posted to Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland. Demjanjuk was accused of having served as a “wachmann,” a guard, the lowest rank of the “Hilfswillige” volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men.
In a 1985 report, the FBI’s Cleveland field office concluded that: “Justice is ill-served in the prosecution of an American citizen on evidence which is not only normally inadmissible in a court of law but based on evidence and allegations quite likely fabricated by the KGB.” That revelation has led to new court action in the U.S., with a District Court judge in Cleveland on Tuesday agreeing to appoint a public defender to represent Demjanjuk there, raising the prospect of renewing the decades-old case.