Israeli judges convict former auto worker of being `Ivan the Terrible'

The three-judge panel at the Nazi war-crimes trial of John Demjanjuk announced a guilty verdict late yesterday. The former Cleveland auto worker was convicted of being Ivan the Terrible who ran gas-chambers and tortured prisoners at the Treblinka camp in Poland. From 1942 to 1943, 850,000 Jews died there.

Mr. Demjanjuk held he was a victim of mistaken identity.

Sentencing is set for April 25. Demjanjuk's attorneys have 45 days to appeal.

Legal experts say it will be difficult not to render the death sentence, which is permitted but not required under a 1950 statute relating to Nazi collaborators. A death sentence would automatically be reviewed by Israel's high court.

Demjanjuk is the first person tried as a Nazi war criminal in Israel since Adolf Eichmann was hung here 26 years ago.

Prosecuting attorneys rested their case on ``two pillars:'' eyewitness testimony of five Treblinki survivors and an identity card supplied by the Soviet Union that, according to the three-judge panel, proved Demjanjuk was assigned to another German camp that trained him for duties at Treblinka.

The panel found ``totally unacceptable and implausible'' Demjanjuk's assertion that in 1942 and 1943 he was a prisoner of war in Chelm, Poland.

Demjanjuk was unable to recall even the most basic details of the 18 months he says he spent in Chelm. The judges also questioned Demjanjuk's chronology, where there was a 10-month gap between the time the Chelm facility was closed and the formation of a pro-German Ukranian militia Demjanjuk said he joined near the war's end.

Demjanjuk's attorneys sought to discredit the reliability of the eyewitnesses' testimony, arguing that after 45 years memories could not be relied on. Demjanjuk insisted the Soviet-supplied ID card was an effort to frame him because he served in the anti-Soviet Ukranian division.

Yesterday, the judges read from the 400-page opinion, much of it devoted to the Holocaust and the operations of Treblinka.

Like the 1961 Eichmann trial, this case became a national obsession. But unlike the Eichmann trial, which focused on the Holocaust's horrors, the impact of Demjanjuk's case was blunted by nagging identity questions. The trial that could have been a final extended history lesson on the Holocaust soon played to a half-empty courtroom.

Since 1952, Demjanjuk had lived with his wife and three children while working at a Ford plant in Cleveland, Ohio. His background came to light in 1975 when a Ukranian living in the United States sent a list of suspected war criminals to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1986 he was stripped of his US citizenship and extradited to Israel.

Despite Israel's vow to leave no stone unturned in an effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, it has set up no government-financed global dragnet. And only Eichmann and Demjanjuk have been tried.

One reason cited by justice ministry sources is the high cost of trials for war crimes. The Demjanjuk trial has cost Israel more than $600,000. Another reason, says a Jerusalem lawyer, is that since Israel's decisive victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, ``Israelis don't want to be reminded of the past when Jews were seen as victims who couldn't defend themselves.''

Another explanation given is that the Holocaust was never part of the historical experience of Israel's new majority of Sephardic (non-European) Jews.

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