Nazi War Crimes Trial Starts: Demjanjuk's Lawyer Accuses Judge of Prejudice

The trial of John Demjanjuk, accused of helping to murder 27,900 Jews in the Holocaust, started in Munich on Monday under the glare of the world's press. His lawyer said Demjanjuk would have been killed if he hadn't carried out his orders -- and caused outrage by claiming he was "on the same level" with Holocaust survivors.

John Demjanjuk entered court in a wheelchair, his head reclined on a headrest, on Monday in Munich to face charges of helping to hound 27,900 Jews into the gas chambers of Sobibor.

In what has been billed as the last major Nazi war crimes trial, scores of journalists from around the world and relatives of Jews murdered at Sobibor watched on as Demjanjuk's attorneys began their defense with a motion that both the judge and the prosecutors were prejudiced against the defendant.

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Photo Gallery: Trial of John Demjanjuk Starts in Munich
Ulrich Busch, one of his attorneys, told the court that commanders in Sobibor had been acquitted in previous trials while Demjanjuk was being put on trial even though he had been forced on pain of death to carry out the work.

That, Busch said, was arbitrary. He caused outrage among the Holocaust survivors in the courtroom when he said Demjanjuk stood "on the same level" with the survivors because he had been forced to work in Sobibor under German command.

The court must decide by Wednesday whether to accept Busch's argument. Meanwhile, the judge decided the trial, which is expected to last until May, would continue.

Eyes Shut, Mouth Open

Demjanjuk, covered in a blue rug and wearing a blue baseball cap, sat in silence with his eyes closed as news photographers took pictures of him in a blaze of flashguns. His mouth occasionally fell open during the proceedings on Monday and he had his eyes closed most of the time. He showed no expression. His lawyer GŁnther Maull said last week he doubted whether Demjanjuk was in a position to follow the trial.

Doctors and phsychiatrists have declared him fit for trial, but only for two 90-minute sessions per day. He has been diagnosed with a with a bone marrow disease and his lawyer says he is in constant pain and "mentally absent."

The start of the trial was delayed by a over an hour because of tight security checks and the onslaught of 270 accredited journalists from around the world, plus some 20 co-plaintiffs. They were all trying to squeeze into the courtroom which has just 150 seats.

Demjanjuk denies he was involved in the Holocaust and his family insists he is too frail to stand trial.

Justice, Not Revenge

"Justice takes a long time. I am not seeking revenge for Demjanjuk. He should tell the truth," said plaintiff Thomas Blatt, 82, a prisoner at Sobibor whose family was killed at the camp in 1943 and who at 15 was ordered to sort out belongings of Jews sent to be gassed. "Today is important because it is the last big international case that everyone is interested in."

According to court documents, Demjanjuk fought in the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1942 and volunteered to become a concentration camp guard for Adolf Hitler's SS organisation, which staffed the camps.

Prosecutors say he was stationed for six months at Sobibor, where he helped other guards herd people off railway carriages, force them to strip naked and enter a four-by-four meter gas chamber. Engine exhaust fumes were pumped in, causing a lethal mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that killed after 20 to 30 minutes.

Although he has acknowledged being at other camps, Demjanjuk has denied he was in Sobibor, which prosecutors say was run by 20-30 Nazi SS members and up to 150 former Soviet war prisoners.

cro -- with wire reports

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