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Trial of suspected Nazi guard Demjanjuk opens in Munich

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-11-30

John Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old suspected former Nazi guard, was rolled into a Munich court in a wheelchair Monday for the start of his trial on charges of being an accessory in the deaths of nearly 28,000 Jews.

Wearing a baseball cap, a leather jacket and thick glasses, John Demjanjuk, 89, appeared before a German court on Monday for the start of what is likely to be the world’s last major Holocaust trial.

Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, who his family says is too ill to stand trial, was rolled into a Munich courtroom accompanied by two guards and two medical staff. The medical officer charged with assessing Demjanjuk's health said he was fit to stand trial, but because of his poor condition his court presence will be limited to two 90-minute sessions per day.

Twenty minutes into the first session the judge ordered a break. Demjanjuk was returned a short time later to the courtroom. When the accused returned later in the day for the second 90-minute session he was brought in on a hospital stretcher. He had his eyes closed most of the time during the proceedings.

Demjanjuk is accused of being a guard – or Wachmann as it’s called in German – of the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where he is accused of overseeing the deaths of nearly 28,000 Jews.

Demjanjuk, who moved to the US in 1952 and became a naturalised US citizen, had his citizenship stripped, then restored again, then stripped again before he was finally extradited to Germany in May 2009 following a lengthy legal battle.

Relatives of Nazi victims crowded outside the court early Monday, many of them displaying photographs of their deceased loved ones. The trial had been scheduled to begin at 10:00 am local time, but was delayed as organisers were overwhelmed by a large number of people gathered at the courthouse.

Reporting from the courthouse, FRANCE 24’s Anne Maillet noted that the trial marked a first for the German tribunal. “It’s the first time an accomplice to Nazi-era crimes of non-German origins is appearing before a German court,” said Maillet.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Serge Klarsfeld, president of the Association of the Children of Jewish Deportees of France, said there was a contradiction in having Germany judge a foreigner for Nazi-era crimes while so many German war criminals got off so lightly.

“Some of them were never even brought to court, because the German justice system is very indulgent towards its big Nazi criminals,” Klarsfeld said.

Demjanjuk has denied being a guard at the Sobibor camp. But prosecutors maintain they have sufficient evidence to condemn him, including an SS identity card attesting that Demjanjuk was trained to be a camp guard and that he was shipped to Sobibor. They also claim to have written testimony from persons now deceased stating that Demjanjuk was at the camp.

A troubled legal history

Born in the Ukraine, Demjanjuk emigrated to the United States after World War II and became a US citizen. In 1981, the United States stripped Demjanjuk of his citizenship and authorised his extradition to Israel, where he was condemned to death in 1988 after a court concluded that he was a notoriously cruel gas chamber operator nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible”. But Demjanjuk was acquitted on appeal after an Israeli investigation concluded that the notorious Ivan was another man.

He was sent back to the United States, which restored his citizenship in 1998 only to revoke it once more in 2002, deeming that Demjanjuk had lied about his Nazi past.

Demjanjuk has claimed that during the war he was in Russia's Red Army, and that he worked for the Nazis only after being taken prisoner in 1942.

In March 2009, German courts issued an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk based on suspicions that he was a camp guard at Sobibor. This unleashed a judicial battle over his extradition to Germany, with his family protesting his extradition on health grounds.

Two months later, US courts ruled in favour of sending Demjanjuk to Germany, where he was flown in a medically equipped plane on May 12. His trial is likely to last about six months. 

Date created : 2009-11-30


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