The 18-month trial of John Demjanjuk on charges he aided in the murder of 27,900 Jews during World War II is scheduled to end today with a verdict from Munich judges that may enter “new legal territory.”
Demjanjuk, a former U.S. citizen, has faced similar charges before. He spent almost eight years in Israeli custody before being acquitted in 1993 of accusations he was Treblinka extermination camp guard “Ivan the Terrible.” He was charged in Germany in 2009 with being a guard aiding in the murder of Jews at the Sobibor death camp in then German-occupied Poland.
The case, drawn out by the 91-year-old Demjanjuk’s failing health and disputes over 68-year-old evidence, reflects the pitfalls of prosecution of Nazi-related crimes, Frank Saliger, a professor of criminal law and philosophy of law at Hamburg’s Bucerius Law School, said in an interview.
“If you look at Demjanjuk, you don’t see the typical Nazi criminal you’d imagine,” Saliger said. “Many other perpetrators were never brought to justice -- and that’s just one of the case’s many imbalances, which leave you with a bitter taste.”
Judges are tentatively scheduled to deliver the verdict today. The court opened today’s session by rejecting 32 motions Demjanjuk’s lawyer Ulrich Busch filed yesterday when finishing his closing arguments. If Busch files further motions, the verdict could be delayed. The hearing is in recess and is set to resume at 12:30 p.m.
The maximum sentence under German law is 15 years. The prosecution asked for a six-year term, saying the time served in Israel should be taken into account.
The Munich prosecutors’ principal evidence is an identity card and staff lists that indicate Demjanjuk served at Sobibor from March to September 1943. The fact he was at the camp is enough for a conviction, because everyone who worked there supported the Nazi death machine, prosecutors say.
The prosecution departed from a 2003 decision by Germany’s investigative unit for Nazi crimes not to prosecute Demjanjuk because there was no way to prove what specific acts he committed.
Five years later, an investigator at the unit read about the U.S. stripping Demjanjuk of his citizenship. He started a new probe using the concept that anybody who served at a death camp supported the murders.
“This was certainly new legal territory we were entering with our concept,” Thomas Will, the deputy head of the unit said in an interview. “The court will now have to decide whether it’s valid.”
About 25 to 30 German SS officers served in the camp, aided by about 100 to 120 guards recruited from Russian prisoners of war who were called Trawniki after the name of their training camp. The Germans captured Demjanjuk, who was fighting in the Russian Army, in 1942 and then transferred him to Trawniki, according to the indictment.
If historical documents suggest Trawniki men had no other task than helping kill Jews and the court is convinced Demjanjuk served there, a conviction is in line with the law, said Saliger, the Hamburg law professor.
“It could be different if Demjanjuk somehow could show he was an atypical Trawniki with a different task,” said Saliger. “But that would require him to say he actually was there, which he of course doesn’t want to admit.”
Demjanjuk’s lawyer Ulrich Busch, in his closing arguments last week, reiterated what he has said in hundreds of unsuccessful motions: the documents were forged and any conviction would be egregious given the fact that higher-ranking Germans were acquitted of similar charges.
Even if he had been there, Demjanjuk would have been the “smallest of the small fries,” said Busch. Russian prisoners of war often starved and serving as a guard was the only way to escape death, he said.
About 35 relatives of camp victims and survivors, most of them from the Netherlands, registered as co-plaintiffs in the case. While all asked for a conviction, some said a prison sentence wasn’t necessary.
Even if the court acquitted Demjanjuk, he couldn’t return to his family in Ohio, which he was able to do after he was cleared in Israel, because he is no longer a U.S. citizen. Instead he would remain in Germany, most likely living on welfare in a nursing home.
“In that sense, Demjanjuk already has a life sentence regardless of what the verdict will be, and that’s another factor that leaves you with a bitter taste,” said Saliger. “He appears to also be a victim of history: he was at the wrong place at the wrong time on too many occasions.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Karin Matussek in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons in London at aaarons@Bloomberg.net.