Justice and `Ivan the Terrible'

JUSTICE is on trial in both Israel and the United States. If Israel's Supreme Court upholds the guilty verdict - and the death sentence - against John Demjanjuk, the justices must be satisfied not only of Mr. Demjanjuk's guilt, but also that legal rules and procedures were scrupulously followed by American and Israeli prosecutors.

In 1988 an Israeli trial court ruled that Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible," a guard at the Treblinka concentration camp in 1942-43 who personally killed and tortured thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Demjanjuk, a Ukranian who settled in Cleveland after World War II, was identified as the infamous Ivan by federal investigators in 1977. He was stripped of his American citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel five years later.

Demjanjuk has maintained his innocence. The evidence against him, while substantial, is not irrefutable. The identifications of "Ivan" by five Treblinka survivors, though made with certitude, cannot be wholly reliable 45 years after the events. Documentation purporting to place Demjanjuk at Treblinka has been challenged.

New evidence from recently opened Soviet files further clouds the case against Demjanjuk. Other Treblinka guards interrogated by Soviet authorities after the war named a different man as the Ivan who operated the camp's gas chamber. Learning of these reports, the US court of appeals that upheld Demjanjuk's extradition order has, at its own initiative, reopened the case.

Israeli prosecutors, insisting they have the right man, are asking the Supreme Court to uphold the conviction and death sentence. (Demjanjuk's execution would be only the second in Israel's history; Adolf Eichmann was put to death in 1962.) But now the prosecution contends that even if Demjanjuk wasn't at Treblinka, he committed similar crimes at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp. As at least one Israeli justice has indicated, however, such prosecutorial weaseling is an unacceptable way to convict a man o f capital crimes.

The Holocaust was a dreadful chapter in human history, one whose lessons must never be forgotten. Any efforts to blur the horror, let alone to deny it, must be rigorously opposed. No statute of limitations should shield its remaining perpetrators.

But the best rebukes to the Holocaust - that monstrous abrogration of civilized conduct - are strong assertions of civilized standards, particularly standards of justice. Injustice, in pursuit of however great a moral cause, will ease no pain in Jewish hearts and do no honor to the state of Israel.

Symbolic trials have been, from Socrates to Sacco and Vanzetti, susceptible to miscarriages of justice. It's not the Holocaust on trial in Israel, but one individual man. Of course, if Demjanjuk is guilty he deserves to be punished (though what would be gained by hang-ing him, rather than imprisoning him for life?). But his guilt must be established beyond reasonable doubt, with every "jot and tittle" of the law faithfully observed.

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