Israeli war-crime trial enters crucial phase. Demjanjuk defense case may rest on proving documents are forged
Jerusalem — Battle lines have been drawn in a crucial phase of the trial here of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. Mr. Demjanjuk, testifying this week for the first time in the six-month-old trial, is consistently denying charges that he was ``Ivan the Terrible,'' a Ukranian guard who operated gas chambers and tortured inmates at the Nazi-run Treblinka concentration camp in Poland during World War II.
``I was never at Treblinka,'' he has repeatedly told the court. ``Please believe me, and do not put a noose around my neck for the actions of someone else.''
Demjanjuk faces a possible death sentence if convicted. Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann was hanged in 1962 after his conviction in the only other war crimes trial in Israel's history.
The first two days of Demjanjuk's testimony have clearly revealed the strategies of the defense and prosecution.
The defense is sticking to the argument Demjanjuk made in the United States: The Ukranian-born retired auto worker from Cleveland is a victim of mistaken identity. Demjanjuk lost his US citizenship and was extradited to Israel last year.
Defense lawyer John Gill has led Demjanjuk through an account of his whereabouts between the summers of 1942 and '43 - the period he is alleged to have been at Treblinka. Demjanjuk says he was conscripted into the Russian Army and taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 after the battle of the Crimean Peninsula.
He says he was later shipped to Poland, where he served time in the Rovno Chelm prisoner-of-war camp. He denied prosecution charges that he had volunteered at Rovno Chelm to join the Nazi SS, or special military police.
After 18 months at the camp, the defendant said, he and some 400 Ukranians were picked by the Germans to serve in the Russian Liberation Army, a pro-German force headed by a renegade Soviet general. Demjanjuk insisted that he served in unit until the end of the war.
In testimony yesterday, Demjanjuk conceded that he had lied about his wartime whereabouts on US immigration documents, but he said this was done to prevent possible repatriation and punishment in the Soviet Union.
Demjanjuk's chief defense counsel, Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel, said in his opening speech on Monday that he would show that a document claimed by the prosecution to be Demjanjuk's identity card at the SS training camp in Trawniki, Poland, is a forgery faked by the Soviet KGB, or secret police.
The Trawniki card bearing Demjanjuk's purported picture and signature would be ``ground to dust'' by the defense and ``nothing will remain of it,'' Sheftel said.
In earlier hearings, the prosecution has brought experts to testify to the authenticity of the card and the picture it bears. But Demjanjuk said yesterday he knew nothing of the card and his alleged signature, and that he never wore the clothes pictured on it.
Sheftel said he had obtained evidence leaked to him from the Office of Special Investigations in the US Justice Department that showed that 21 Treblinka survivors had failed to identify Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.
Asserting that this information had been suppressed by the OIS, Sheftel said the defense would call an expert who would challenge the identifications of Demjanjuk made earlier in the trial by five survivors.
The strategy of the prosecution, which began cross-examining Demjanjuk yesterday, is apparently to find contradicions between statements he has made to the Israeli tribunal and his earlier testimony before US courts.
State Prosecutor Yona Blatman said that since Demjanjuk has been through numerous legal proceedings in the US and Israel, he ``has an answer to every question.'' Yet Demjanjuk was unable to explain a discrepancy between his accounts in Israel and in the US of exactly when he erased a tattoo in his left armpit that the prosecution says was given to SS trainees.
Demjanjuk said the tattoo was a blood-type notation made by the Germans that he had removed when he discovered it was similar to that given to SS conscripts.
The accused, who listened and spoke through interpreters, appeared to have difficulty understanding questions put to him by the prosecutor and at times gave incomplete and inaccurate answers. But he showed no signs of retracting any arguments he made in court.
Observers here believe the Demjanjuk trial is not likely to be decided chiefly on the basis of the defendant's testimony. The test will be whether the defense attorneys can effectively demonstrate significant weaknesses in the prosecution's evidence that Demjanjuk is indeed the notorious Ivan the Terrible.