By ERIC LICHTBLAU, TIMES STAFF WRITER
WASHINGTON -- A quarter-century after prosecutors first accused him of being a Nazi death camp guard, retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship Thursday by a federal judge who concluded that the 81-year-old Ukrainian native concealed his wartime activities when he immigrated to the United States.
Eyewitness accounts, along with recently unearthed documents that include a Nazi identification card, photographs and handwriting samples, show "unequivocally" that Demjanjuk was a guard at Nazi concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of Jews were systematically murdered, Paul Matia, chief judge in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, ruled.
The decision puts the U.S. government one key step closer to deporting Demjanjuk to Europe for the second time in a case fraught with contradiction and emotion. Demjanjuk's citizenship was first revoked in 1981, after U.S. authorities became convinced in a years-long probe that he was the infamous Nazi guard "Ivan the Terrible." He was then extradited to Israel, put on trial and sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, only to be freed and allowed to return to his family in Cleveland in 1993 after officials determined they had the wrong man.
Demjanjuk regained his U.S. citizenship in 1998 when Matia, citing criticism of government lawyers by an appellate court panel, said the lawyers had acted "with reckless disregard for their duty to the court" by withholding evidence in 1981 that could have helped Demjanjuk's attorneys. Matia restored Demjanjuk's citizenship but said he would allow the Justice Department to reinstitute denaturalization proceedings based on other evidence.
U.S. officials say that, although Demjanjuk may not have been Ivan the Terrible, they are confident that he was a guard at four Nazi camps in 1942 and 1943, including the Sobibor camp in Poland, which Justice Department official Eli Rosenbaum said Thursday was "as close an approximation of hell as has ever been created on this planet."
Prosecutors alleged in presenting their case before Matia last spring that Demjanjuk and other guards at Sobibor pushed Jews with rifle butts and hit them as they were loaded off freight trains at the camp, then later escorted them to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Demjanjuk's family vowed to appeal Thursday's decision. He remains free in the meantime.
"We tried our case and continue to believe the government is wrong. We most respectfully believe that Judge Matia has made serious factual and legal errors in his opinion," said Ed Nishnic, Demjanjuk's son-in-law and the family's spokesman.
"It is true that judges have ruled against us in the past and public opinion has been against us in the past," he said. "Nevertheless, we have proven them wrong before and have been vindicated. We will appeal and will prove them wrong once again."
Although the details of his story have shifted repeatedly since accusations were first leveled against him in 1977, Demjanjuk has steadfastly denied that he was ever a guard at a concentration camp. Demjanjuk, who was raised on a farm in Ukraine, says the Germans held him in two POW camps after he was captured during the war and then sent him to fight his former army, the Soviets, with a band of other Ukrainians in Austria.
"What is written here, how could it be me?" Demjanjuk said in one deposition about the charges against him. He did not testify at his trial last year.
Matia said he did not believe Demjanjuk's explanations about where he was and what he did during the war. In a 93-page opinion, the judge cited extensive documentation, some from the Nazis' own macabre records, in concluding that Demjanjuk was guard No. 1393 at Nazi camps in Trawniki, Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg.
"The government has shown by clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence that the defendant assisted in the persecution of civilian populations during World War II," Matia wrote.
Moreover, the judge said that Demjanjuk was a "willing" participant in the death camps, "as he was paid, he was eligible for leave and benefits, and there is no evidence he sought to desert or flee."
Based on these findings, Matia concluded that Demjanjuk had lied about his past and concealed his Nazi involvement when he sought to enter the United States after World War II. He immigrated to the United States in 1952 and became a naturalized citizen in 1958, raising a family in Cleveland and working at a Ford auto plant. Matia said that had Demjanjuk's true past been known, he would never have been allowed into the country.
U.S. officials said they were gratified that their relentless pursuit of Demjanjuk might finally pay off.
"I think [the ruling] is a vindication of the Justice Department's eager pursuit of anybody who came into this country under false pretenses, having served the Nazis in any capacity, as a guard or otherwise," said Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff.
But officials acknowledged that with Demjanjuk's family vowing an appeal, it could be years before he is deported.
"Believe me, they're not taking him to the airport yet. It's a long way to go," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has been active in the Demjanjuk case for years. "I must say John Demjanjuk has the luck of the Irish. He's avoided the bar of justice for decades."
The 1979 law authorizing the creation of the Justice Department's Nazi war-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, allows the U.S. government to deport Nazis but not try them for war crimes.
No country has yet come forward to seek Demjanjuk's extradition, but Hier said the Wiesenthal Center will now push to have Demjanjuk deported to Russia, Poland or Israel to stand trial.
Thursday's ruling "is more a slap on the wrist than something real," Hier said. "Yes, he's going to give up a precious document--his citizenship--but he has not yet paid for his crimes."
Demjanjuk is the 67th U.S. citizen to be denaturalized as a result of the work of the Nazi-hunting unit, with 54 people having been removed from the country.