SOMETIMES law appears to conflict with justice; at times law even seems to subvert justice.
That's the conclusion that many Jews and others are drawing from the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court last month to reverse the conviction of John Demjanjuk. In 1988 an Israeli court sentenced Mr. Demjanjuk to death for war crimes he allegedly committed as "Ivan the Terrible," a brutal guard at the Treblinka concentration camp during World War II.
But Israel's high court said there was reasonable doubt that the defendant was Ivan. Although former Treblinka prisoners identified Demjanjuk as the gas-chamber operator who sent thousands of Jews to their deaths, other evidence - including secret Soviet files opened after the fall of communism - contradicted the witnesses.
Now Demjanjuk wants to return to Cleveland, where he lived from his immigration to the United States in 1952 until he was extradited to Israel in 1986. But the Israeli Supreme Court has refused to let Demjanjuk leave pending a decision on whether to prosecute him on alleged war crimes at other Nazi death camps. Its ruling is expected on Wednesday. Also, the US Justice Department is barring the door, claiming that Demjanjuk lied in immigration documents about his wartime experience.
Demjanjuk should be allowed to return to the US. His extradition was for the limited purpose of trying him as Ivan the Terrible. Israel should not bootstrap (on the extradition to prosecute Demjanjuk) crimes that he wasn't previously charged with.
For its part, Washington should let Demjanjuk back into the country because of serious questions about the manner in which he was stripped of his citizenship in 1981 and later packed off to Israel. A US court of appeals, for instance, has suggested that the Justice Department handled the case in a sloppy manner and was insufficiently diligent in following leads to exonerating evidence.
Valid grounds may well exist to ultimately deport Demjanjuk from the US and perhaps even to try him again in Israel. Both countries should pursue their cases if the evidence warrants. But each country should observe every jot and tittle of the law.
Yes, the law is a stickler for due process, and that can be inconvenient in the pursuit of justice. In the long run, though, due process is the best safeguard civilization has against injustice and abuses of power.