Germany seeking twilight justice for Nazi criminals

14th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The extradition of the 89-year-old Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk to Germany means that his may be one of the last major Nazi war crimes trials here.

Berlin -- Six decades after the Nazi era, the legal odyssey of former death camp guard John Demjanjuk has led him to Germany, which is stepping up efforts to take on such cases despite daunting obstacles.

The extradition of the 89-year-old Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk to Germany, where he briefly lived after the war before emigrating to the United States, means that his may be one of the last major Nazi war crimes trials here.

He is accused of complicity in the murder of more than 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in eastern German-occupied Poland -- 1,900 of them German citizens -- during the six months he served as a guard there in 1943.

Demjanjuk's case is rare in Germany as the country, to the extent it prosecuted Nazi crimes in the postwar years, tended to focus on its own nationals, historian Hans-Juergen Boemelburg of the University of Giessen said.

Since the end of the war and the US-run Nuremberg trials, German justice authorities examined tens of thousands of files, but most cases were eventually dropped.

"Germany only got interested in these cases" -- involving eastern European suspects -- "in the 1990s, when it developed a certain trust toward eastern European countries" as a source of evidence after the collapse of communism, he said.

Before that, he said, German society "was never particularly interested in such prosecutions and airing its dirty laundry," Boemelburg told AFP.

The case originally came to German investigators' attention when news reports said that the United States, where Demjanjuk settled in 1952, was considering stripping him of his citizenship for lying about his wartime past.

Kurt Schrimm, director of the federal office probing Nazi crimes in the southern city of Ludwigsburg, indicated Tuesday that while Demjanjuk was sure to be one of the last elderly suspects hauled before a German court, others could still follow.

"We still have a lot ahead of us this year. There are similar cases to that of Mr Demjanjuk," he told the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung.

They include US residents Ivan Kalymon, an 87-year-old Ukrainian former policeman, and 83-year-old Johann Breyer, born in Slovakia and believed to have been a guard at the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Another man in their sights, Lithuanian Algimantas Dailide, 87, is a former officer with the secret police in Vilnius who today lives in Germany.

He was sentenced in Lithuania to five years in prison but was released due to poor health.

The Ludwigsburg office says 106,000 members of the Nazi party or the Wehrmacht armed forces have been accused of war crimes since the war, of whom 13,000 have been indicted. Only about 6,500 have been convicted.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem which tracks Nazi criminals, recently praised the renewed efforts of Germany and the United States, specifically citing the Demjanjuk case.

But the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, raised doubts whether the new arrival would ever be sentenced due to his advanced age and repeated claims of ill health.

In January, a German court ruled that an 87-year-old former Nazi SS soldier of Dutch origin was too old and too ill to stand trial in Germany for the murder of three Dutch resistance fighters during World War II.

Prosecutors had sought to put Heinrich Boere on trial for the killings in 1944, for which he was sentenced in absentia by a Dutch court to life imprisonment. He will now live out his days in a nursing home.

There are dozens of other suspects who will spend their twilight years with little fear of the law, despite the international attention given to the Demjanjuk case, said Ulrich Sander of the Nazi victims' association VVN-BdA.

Germany refuses to extradite Soeren Kam, a former SS officer wanted in Denmark, and several other former Nazis convicted in Italy in absentia.

"You could have another 60 cases or so in Germany but they never come to trial," Sander said, noting the only exception was Josef Scheungraber, a former German army lieutenant accused of the reprisal killings of 14 civilians in Italy, who is being tried in Munich.

"In Germany, you investigate and investigate... and then finally there is simply a biological solution -- they die."

Audrey Kauffmann/AFP/Expatica

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