Kyiv Post | 12May2011 | Reuters
German court convicts then frees Demjanjuk
MUNICH, May 12, 2011 (Reuters) -- A German court convicted John
Thursday for his role in the killing of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi
death camp during the Holocaust, then set the 91-year-old free because
of his age.
Holocaust survivors at first welcomed the Munich court's verdict that
Demjanjuk, who was exonerated in another war crimes case in Israel two
decades ago, was an accessory to mass murder as a guard at Sobibor camp
in Poland during World War Two.
But they then expressed dismay at Judge Ralph Alt's decision to free
Demjanjuk despite handing down a five-year sentence.
"At the end he threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and
destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor," Martin Mendelsohn,
counsel for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and the lawyer of
two co-plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters.
Demjanjuk showed no reaction while the judge read out his verdict. It
said guards played a key role at extermination camps like Sobibor,
where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite
only 20 German SS officers being there.
"He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp," Alt
But he said that since Demjanjuk had already been imprisoned on remand
for two years, more time in jail seemed inappropriate at his age. "The
defendant is to be let go," he said. A court statement cited two other
reasons: Demjanjuk had already spent eight years in prison in Israel
and the crime was 68 years old.
Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel
for being the notorious "Ivan the Terrible" camp guard at Treblinka in
The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel's supreme court
in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken
The Ukraine-born Demjanjuk has been in a German jail since he was
extradited from the United States two years ago and his lawyers had
sought his release on age and health grounds.
He attended the 18-month court proceedings in Munich -- the birthplace
of Adolf Hitler's Nazi movement -- in a wheelchair, and sometimes lying
down. He denied the charges but otherwise did not speak at his trial.
JUSTICE, NOT REVENGE
Stephan J. Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in
Germany, told Reuters that the verdict was "not revenge but the
execution of justice, even 65 years later".
Victims' groups said the main point for them was the guilty verdict and
they refrained from criticising the decision to set Demjanjuk free.
"For us the important thing is that he got convicted," World Jewish
Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. "It's not up to an
organisation like us to say whether he should be in jail or not."
"It's inappropriate that he be freed, but I'm not going to question the
German judicial system," said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering
of Holocaust Survivors and their descendents.
Vera Dejong, whose family were Sobibor victims, said she was "very much
relieved I don't have to have all the stress every time I have to come
and sit here and hear all the horrible things that happened during the
war and to my family".
Demjanjuk, who was once atop the Wiesenthal Center's list of most
wanted Nazi war criminals, said he was drafted into the Soviet army in
1941 then taken prisoner of war by the Germans.
His son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said in an e-mail before the verdict that
his father was a victim of the Nazis and of post-war Germany.
"While those who refuse to accept that reality may take satisfaction
from this event, nothing the Munich court can do will atone for the
suffering Germany has perpetrated upon him to this day," he said.
Prosecutors had faced several hurdles in proving Demjanjuk's guilt,
with no surviving witnesses to his crimes and heavy reliance on wartime
documents, namely a Nazi ID card that defence attorneys said was a fake
made by the Soviets.
Guards at Nazi death camps like Sobibor were essential to the mass
killing of Jews because extermination was the focus of such camps,
Defence attorney Ulrich Busch told the court that even if Demjanjuk did
become a prison guard, he did so only because as a prisoner of war he
would have either been shot by the Nazis or died of starvation.
Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s and became
a naturalised citizen in 1958, working as an engine mechanic in Ohio.