Kyiv Post | 13May2011 | Reuters

Demjanjuk convicted in Germany, then set free because of age

A German court convicted John Demjanjuk on May 12 for his role in the killing of 27,900 Jews in the Sobibor Nazi death camp during the Holocaust, then set the 91-year-old free because of his age.

Holocaust survivors at first welcomed the Munich court’s verdict that Demjanjuk, who was exonerated in another war crimes case in Israel two decades ago, was an accessory to mass murder as a guard at Sobibor camp in Poland during World War Two.

But they then expressed dismay at Judge Ralph Alt’s decision to free Demjanjuk despite handing down a five-year sentence.

“At the end he threw everyone in the courtroom a curveball and destroyed the hopes of the survivors of Sobibor,” Martin Mendelsohn, counsel for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and the lawyer of two co-plaintiffs in the case, told Reuters.

Demjanjuk showed no reaction while the judge read out his verdict. It said guards played a key role at extermination camps like Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews are thought to have been killed despite only 20 German SS officers being there.

“He knew from the beginning exactly what was going on in the camp,” Alt said.

But he said that since Demjanjuk had already been imprisoned on remand for two years, more time in jail seemed inappropriate at his age. “The defendant is to be let go,” he said. A court statement cited two other reasons: Demjanjuk had already spent eight years in prison in Israel and the crime was 68 years old.

Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel for being the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” camp guard at Treblinka in Poland.

The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel’s supreme court in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken identity.

The Ukraine-born Demjanjuk has been in a German jail since he was extradited from the United States two years ago and his lawyers had sought his release on age and health grounds.

He attended the 18-month court proceedings in Munich -- the birthplace of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement -- in a wheelchair, and sometimes lying down. He denied the charges but otherwise did not speak at his trial.

Justice, not revenge

Stephan J. Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Reuters that the verdict was “not revenge but the execution of justice, even 65 years later”.

Victims’ groups said the main point for them was the guilty verdict and they refrained from criticising the decision to set Demjanjuk free.
“For us the important thing is that he got convicted,” World Jewish Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. “It’s not up to an organisation like us to say whether he should be in jail or not.”

“It’s inappropriate that he be freed, but I’m not going to question the German judicial system,” said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.

Demjanjuk's son, John Jr., said in an e-mail before the verdict that his father was a victim of the Nazis and of post-war Germany.