June 19, 2019

Nazi death camp guard convicted then released

Being held to account was a long time coming for John Demjanjuk. So long in fact he won't have to go back to prison.

The trial of Sobibor, concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk in Germany has ended in controversy with his conviction and immediate release.

91 year-old Demjanjuk was found guilty for his role in the killing of 28,000 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi death camp during World War Two.

Holocaust survivors and their suporters at first welcomed the Munich court’s verdict that Demjanjuk, was guilty of being an accessory to mass murder.

But joy turned to dismay when Judge Ralph Alt’s decided to free Demjanjuk despite handing down a five-year prison sentence.

“At the end he threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor,” said Martin Mendelsohn, counsel for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the lawyer of two co-plaintiffs in the case.

Demjanjuk showed no reaction while the judge read out his verdict. Judge Alt said that the camp guards played a key role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where an estimated 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 said.

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 Poland. The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel’s supreme court in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken identity.

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.

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 descendants.

Demjanjuk, who was once at the top 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.

The guards at Sobibor were Ukrainian or Polish civilians or prisoners of war.