On the Trail of 'Ivan the Terrible' Former SS Camp Guard Could Be Tried in Germany
He is accused of committing horrific acts of cruelty against inmates at the Treblinka extermination camp, yet lives as a free man in the US. German prosecutors now want to bring Ivan John Demjanjuk in front of a German court to face war crimes charges.
Former SS guard Ivan John Demjanjuk allegedly ran the gas chamber at Treblinka where 875,00 Jews were murdered.
Ivan John Demjanjuk, branded the second-most-wanted Nazi war criminal by the Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center earlier this year, allegedly committed horrific acts of violence on inmates at the Treblinka extermination camp in the period 1942 to 1943. Demjanjuk was sentenced to death by an Israeli court in 1988, but was freed after his conviction was overturned five years later.
Now, the 88-year-old could face another trial -- this time in Germany. "We are of the opinion that he could be convicted by German criminal law," Kurt Schrimm, Germany's chief Nazi prosecutor told German news agency DPA on Tuesday. Prosecutors want to try Demjanjuk on charges that he was involved in killing Jewish prisoners at the Sobibor extermination camp.
The Ludwigsburg-based Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, which Schrimm heads, is going to apply to Germany's Federal Court of Justice in the next two months to have Demjanjuk extraditated from the US. Germany's highest criminal court will then have to decide if the case can be tried in Germany. According to Schrimm, the chances of German prosecutors succeeding in bringing the alleged war criminal to court were good.
Schrimm said prosecutors in the Demjanjuk case could make use of an exception in German law. Normally the German justice system can only prosecute someone if the criminal is German or the crime was committed in the country, he explained. But in this case, Schrimm said, "a large number of the victims came from Germany and Demjanjuk was acting on German orders."
If the 88-year-old war criminal could be brought to justice in Germany, it could have far-reaching consequences for the prosecution of other Nazi war criminals, Schrimm said: "There are many other people who, like Demjanjuk, don't come from Germany but who could be held accountable under German law." He added a prosecution of the pensioner could become a test case and that officials from the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes had already examined files in Chile and in the US, where many Nazi war criminals fled after World War II.
The attempt to bring Demjanjuk to justice in Germany comes as something of a surprise. Only a few months ago, Schrimm had said the chances of bringing any more Nazi war criminals to justice was very slim. "This is not only because of the advanced age of defendants, but also because we are losing witnesses for the same reason," he commented at the time.
Identified by Survivors
Demjanjuk, who was born in Ukraine, emigrated to the US in 1952. He was deported to Israel in 1986 to face charges that he ran the gas chamber at Treblinka, where over 875,000 Jews were murdered, in the period 1942 to 1943. The charges came about after five camp survivors had testified Demjanjuk was the man depicted in a photograph of a SS guard known as "Ivan the Terrible." The notorious guard committed horrific crimes in the camp, cutting off women's breasts and forcing an inmate to sexually abuse a 12-year-old girl by threatening him with a whip.
Demjanjuk was convicted by an Israeli court of war crimes in 1988 and sentenced to death in what was only the second Nazi war crimes trial to be held in Israel. The other was the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, who organized the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
However, Demjanjuk was set free in 1993 after Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction on appeal. Although the judges found there was plenty of evidence the defendant had served as a guard in other camps, it ruled there was reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was in fact Ivan the Terrible.
After being set free, Demjanjuk returned to the US and regained US citizenship in 1998. He had his citizenship revoked again in 2002 -- this time for good -- and was ordered to be deported from the US. However, so far no country has declared itself willing to accept the 88-year-old.