Haaretz.com | 12Mar2009 | Tom Segev

How many Nazi criminals did Germany punish in 60 years?

When the Supreme Court acquitted John Demjanjuk of alleged war crimes carried out during World War II, it issued 404 pages justifying the decision. On the last page the court wrote on the ruling: "Judges are but flesh and blood and are far from perfect."

Perfection was never one of the saga's key characteristics: It was the biggest blunder in the history of Israel's judiciary. But his acquittal on the grounds his guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt illustrated the system's ability to correct its own errors. Evidence against Demjanjuk was shaky from the start. Determining whether the defendant was actually Ivan the Terrible, the notorious SS guard responsible for the mass murder of Jews at the Treblinka extermination camp, was the main question of the trial. The prosecution's argument was based on an identification card that placed him at the Sobibor extermination camp. For various reasons, among them a shortage of witnesses, it was decided to try him for the murder of Jews at Treblinka.

The mystery surrounding the defendant's true identity shadowed the horrifying testimonies given at the trial. Those accounts did little to internalize the Holocaust's conclusions or act as a warning that one can be tried for war crimes many years after they occurred. The Jerusalem District Court found Demjanjuk guilty in 1988 and sentenced him to death, but many readers of the verdict felt he had not been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union began to crumble, and Demjanjuk's lawyer, Michael Shaked, traveled to Russia and brought back new evidence that raised many questions regarding the original ruling. In 1993, Demjanjuk was exonerated by the Supreme Court's just decision.

There is little chance that the 88-year-old Demjanjuk will be extradited to Germany. He is more likely to die of old age during the lengthy court procedures. It is also uncertain a German court can try a non-German for committing a crime that did not take place on German soil.

Furthermore, Germany's record for trying Nazi criminals is nothing it should feel proud about. More than 36,000 criminal investigations were opened against 172,000 suspects. Of the former number only one in 10 was indicted, and half of those charged were found guilty. Fewer than 10 percent of those found guilty were convicted for crimes at extermination camps, and most of those were given a light sentence. In all, four Nazis were executed and 166 given life sentences.