John Demjanjuk is the first suspected Nazi war criminal to be tried in Israel in 24 years. Currently awaiting trial in an Israeli prison, he was stripped of his United States citizenship and extradited to Israel Feb. 28. He is suspected of being ``Ivan the Terrible,'' a Ukranian guard at the Treblinka death camp in Poland in 1942 and 1943. If convicted under Israel's Nazi and Nazi collaborators law, he is liable to face the death penalty.
Mark O'Connor, the American lawyer who has represented Mr. Demjanjuk in cases over the past four years, arrived in Israel last week to represent his client. Mr. O'Connor insists that he has brought with him evidence that will prove that Demjanjuk is not ``Ivan the Terrible,'' the guard who, Treblinka survivors have said, presided over the death of some 900,000 Jews in the camp's gas chambers.
``All the evidence I have received over the last four years indicates that this man could not possibly be Ivan,'' O'Connor said during an interview. He said he also was encouraged by the uncovering of evidence in Israel since Demjanjuk's arrival here that ``Ivan the Terrible'' may have been killed during an inmates' revolt in Treblinka on Aug. 2, 1943.
Indeed, evidence that has come to light here has embarrassed some Israeli officials and raised the possibility, however faint, that Demjanjuk might be acquitted.
Tuvia Friedman, a Jewish Holocaust archivist in Haifa, has produced a statement that was made to her under oath in December 1947 by Treblinka survivor Elias Rosenberg that mentions the death of Ivan the Terrible. According to Mr. Rosenberg's statement, Ivan was beaten to death by prisoners.
Another survivor, Avraham Goldfarb, said in a statement made in the 1960s that Ivan was killed in the prison uprising. Mr. Goldfarb's testimony was found in the archives of the Holocaust Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, in Tel Aviv.
O'Connor said he intends to interview Friedman about Rosenberg's statement and hopes to call other witnesses at Demjanjuk's trial who, he says, will prove that Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible were two different people. Demjanjuk has maintained throughout the 10-year legal proceedings against him in the United States that he was never at Treblinka. He says that he served in the Soviet Army during the war until he was captured by Germans and was then in a German prisoner of war camp.
The Israeli prosecution is expected to counter the argument with the testimony of Treblinka survivors who identified Demjanjuk during court proceedings and with a mass of evidence that has been accumulated over the past 10 years by Yad Vashem of the national Holocaust memorial and archives in Israel.
Yitzhak Fienberg, spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry, refused to comment directly on O'Connor's contention that Demjanjuk is not Ivan.
``We are not going to do the trial through the press,'' Mr. Fienberg said. But he went on to say that Israel would not ask for the extradition of a suspected Nazi war criminal unless it was ``100 percent sure of a conviction.''
According to Fienberg, the US Office of Special Investigations that is responsible for handling procedures against suspected Nazis is now prosecuting some 30 cases, ``and there are about 200 [suspected Nazis] known to be living in the United States.'' He would not comment on how many more suspected Nazis Israel may seek to have extradited.
The arrival of Demjanjuk in this country gained massive publicity, with most Israeli newspapers assuming that he is Ivan the Terrible. He has been referred to editorially as ``the reptile,'' but O'Connor said he is convinced that his client will receive a fair trial in Israel.
O'Connor said he visited Demjanjuk at Ayalon Prison in Ramle a week ago and said that his client is being well treated by prison authorities. But the attorney said that he has filed a complaint with the Israeli Justice Ministry over what he called Demjanjuk's ``rough treatment'' by interrogators who have interviewed him extensively since his arrival here.
``He was taken from the airport to Ayalon prison and there put immediately under intensive investigation. They said, `You will answer questions in English,' and they got his signature all over the place,'' he said. But Fienberg said he was unaware of any complaint lodged by O'Connor about Demjanjuk's treatment.