John Demjanjuk, alleged Nazi death camp guard, goes on trial in Germany

John Demjanjuk, who prosecutors alleged worked as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor death camp, went on trial in Germany Monday. His is likely the last high profile case over WWII war crimes.

Christof Stache/AP
Police officers and medical assistants escort defendant John Demjanjuk, who sits in a wheelchair, during a trial break in the country court in Munich, southern Germany, on Monday.

The trial of former Nazi guard John Demjanjuk for the murder of 27,900 Jews began in Munich Monday in what is likely to be one of the last major trials of alleged Nazi war criminals and one of the final chances for Holocaust survivors to seek justice.

Mr. Demjanjuk, a former Soviet Red Army soldier who after being captured by the Nazis allegedly volunteered for the SS, is accused of forcing Jews into gas chambers at the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland. He has denied involvement in the Holocaust.

Demjanjuk's attorney Ulrich Busch opened the case today by filing a motion accusing the court and prosecutors of treating the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk more harshly than German-born prison guards, some of whom were acquitted.

"How can you say that those who gave the orders were innocent ... and the one who received the orders is guilty?" Mr. Busch asked the court Monday. "There is a moral and legal double standard being applied today."

Busch also said that Demjanjuk, who was deported to Germany from the US after living and working as an autoworker in the Cleveland area for over 50 years, was "on the same level" as Holocaust victims because he was forced to work in the camp – an assertion that angered survivors who were present in the courtroom. The family of the 88-year-old defendant claims he is terminally ill and therefore should not face trial. Throughout proceedings today, Demjanjuk appeared to be in pain. Doctors who examined Demjanjuk said he was fit to appear in court if the trial were limited to two 90-minute sessions per day, which it was. If convicted, Demjanjuk could receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Last step

The first day of the trial attracted more than 270 journalists from around the world to a 150-seat Munich courtroom. It has also drawn some 20 co-plaintiffs.

The trial is the last step in what has been a long and often complicated effort to bring Demjanjuk to justice. After the war, Demjanjuk moved to the United States and became a citizen.

But in 1986, after an investigation by the Justice Department, he was deported to Israel on charges that he was a notorious guard at the Treblinka death camp known as Ivan the Terrible.

He was sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1988 and spent several years in prison. In 1993 the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk's conviction after a judge found reasonable doubt that he was the brutal Treblinka guard.

After his release, Demjanjuk returned to Ohio. Then, in 2001, he was accused of serving at the Sobibor concentration camp. His deportation was ordered by the United States in that year and again in 2005, but he remained in Ohio because no other country would take him.

In April of this year Germany announced that it would accept and try Demjanjuk. After a number of extradition appeals, Demjanjuk was deported on May 11. He was charged in Munich the next day.

According to prosecutors Demjanjuk served as a guard for the SS. He is the lowest-ranking Nazi officer to ever face trial.

To win a conviction, prosecutors must prove that Demjanjuk worked at the camp. Because there are no living witnesses, the prosecution is relying on an SS identify card that the state believes identifies Demjanjuk as a Sobibor guard.

Demjanjuk claims he is a victim of mistaken identity. He has said that after his capture he was forced to fight against the Soviets as they approached Berlin in World War II's final months.

Demjanjuk's trial is expected to be the last major legal proceeding connected to Nazi war crimes, according to Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In a recent interview, Zuroff said that all Nazis accused of war crimes have either been caught or have passed away, leaving Demjanjuk the last high-profile defendant.

See also:

In Demjanjuk's Ukrainian hometown, memories linger of an infamous son

With the pursuit of Demjanjuk, Germany seeks justice and a measure of redemption

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