Concentration Camp Suspect: US Court Stops Demjanjuk's Deportation
The tug of war over the deportation of suspected concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk to Germany is continuing. A US appeals court on Tuesday issued a temporary stay and his family says it will fight to keep him on US soil. In Germany, however, critics say age and health should not stop justice.
John Demjanjuk was nearly deported to Germany on Tuesday to face war crimes charges. A US appeals court issued a stay as a jet waited on the tarmac to fly him away.
Just before, Demjanjuk's son had rushed in a pickup truck with documents and a video to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati in order to submit a last-minute appeal against a previous ruling by the country's highest immigration court allowing Demjanjuk's deportation.
But it appeared to be too late -- shortly after Demjanjuk Jr. had turned in his paperwork, the authorities came to take the suspected concentration camp guard from his home. Vera, his wife, sat crying with her two grown-up daughters Irene and Lydia in the living room. Demjanjuk's great grandchildren Olivia and 10-year-old Zachary were also there. Demjanjuk's priest came as well to take his confession.
Officials lifted Demjanjuk's arms and legs into a wheelchair. They wanted to use the garage to discretely put him into a car, but the family refused. "The world should see what they are doing to him," said Nishnic. He also impressed on his former father-in-law: "Don't say a word. These people are not on your side." Demjanjuk's transport in a white van was then filmed by a number of TV crews who have been camped out in front of his house in recent days.
Then came the dramatic turning point. The court issued a temporary stay until it could consider Demjanjuk's appeal motion to reopen the case that ordered him deported. The court said four factors had to be balanced in its decision: "the petitioner's likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable harm, the harm to others, and the public interest." In fact, if Demjanjuk leaves US soil, he will never be allowed to return to the country. His attorneys had argued that he could face "torture" in Germany -- the reason, they claimed, is that the country planned to put him on trial despite his state of health.
On March 10, the State Public Prosecutor in Munich issued an arrest warrant against Demjanjuk, first making his deportation to Germany possible. In it, prosecutors accuse the 89-year-old of being an accessory to the murder of 29,000 people. As an alleged guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland, Demjanjuk is believed to have helped drive tens of thousands of people into the gas chambers. Demjanjuk has denied the allegation he served as a guard. But investigators possess strong evidence to the contrary.
In 2002, an American court stripped Demjanjuk of his US citizenship, and the Supreme Court rejected his final appeal in May 2008. Legally, that should have been the end of the road. But Demjanjuk's attorneys have succeeded in delaying his deportation through the courts with new arguments about an allegedly new situation in Germany and their client's deteriorating health.
Attorneys for the Justice Department had argued that Demjanjuk's expedited petition had been unfounded. In a response to the court, justice officials said his claim that his treatment in modern-day Germany would constitute "torture" was a "grotesque debasement of the word a characterization that makes a mockery of the terrible suffering inflicted on genuine victims of torture at at places like the Sobibor extermination center."
Ironically, the Justice Department argued, the petition was coming from a man "who has been confirmed by US courts, including this court, to have contributed to the mass-asphyxiation of thousands of civilians at a human extermination center on behalf of a regime responsible for some of the largest-scale tortures and murders in history." Nevertheless, the appeals court ruled against the Justice Department. It has now won time to determine whether it has jurisdiction for the case and whether it wants to reopen proceedings. It's also unclear how long the process will take.
Immediately after the ruling at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Ed Nishnic drove off to bring his ex-father-in-law home. He was able to speak with him, briefly, at the immigration office, "through a plexiglass pane, like a criminal," Nishnic said. He said Demjanjuk had been rolled in his wheelchair to the area by a doctor and an orderly. He said he told Demjanjuk: "For now you won't have to go to Germany." But he also wasn't allowed to go home yet.
In the waiting room of the immigration office, Nishnic called on Charles Winner, the official responsible, to immediately release Demjanjuk. According to Nishnic, Winner said he had phone calls to make and that decisions would be made elsewhere. Finally, just before 7 p.m., an official ordered Nishnic and Demjanjuk's son John, who had by then returned from Cincinnati, to the garage of the building. A few minutes later they drove out in a dark-gray pick-up truck. John Demjanjuk was sitting behind the tinted windows. Without a wheelchair and without an ambulance.
He was also able to move from the garage to his sick bed with the help of his relatives.
Later, Nishnic would tell reporters the family was pleased to have John Demjanjuk back home. He added that John Jr. was already preparing for the next round of his father's defense. He claimed that the Justice Department had only sped up the tempo of his deportation because of "desperation" amongst German officials brought on in the face of Demjanjuk's "illness."
Demjanjuk Jr. is now hoping that the Germans will lose interest in trying his father because of his bad health and also in his deportation.
But in Germany on Wednesday, the calls for his deportation continued. Former concentration camp victims and relatives of those murdered in the Holocaust called for his swift transfer to Germany. "Age alone should not and cannot protect someone from an arrest warrant," said Max Mannheimer, president of the Dachau concentration camp memorial site near Munich. He accused Demjanjuk of playing for time so that he can be declared unfit for trial.
A spokesperson for Germany's Justice Ministry in Berlin said on Wednesday he hoped a decision would come quickly from the appeals court, but that this was a domestic US issue. Officials in Berlin could only intervene, he said, once Demjanjuk was on German soil.
In Munich, the chief public prosecutor, Anton Winkler, told reporters: "We will just have to wait and see what decision the American courts finally make. But we can't judge from our side how long it will take before a final decision is reached."
Meanwhile, an 82-year-old survivor of the Sobibor death camp said he would be prepared to appear as a witness in the trial. In a press release, Thomas Blatt said he couldn't understand how anyone could let Demjanjuk off the hook because of his age and health. "The legal system must be able to confront a perpetrator with his deeds, even if he is old."
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