Nazi guard freed after German conviction

12th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

A German court sentenced Thursday former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, 91, to five years in jail but then freed him pending a possible appeal and because of his advanced age.

Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was convicted of helping kill almost 30,000 people while a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland in 1943.

But presiding judge Ralph Alt ordered his immediate release, pending a final decision by a federal court and possible appeal, saying the accused no longer posed a threat to society.

He has also spent the past two years in jail here and, as a stateless person, having been stripped of his US citizenship in 2002, was unlikely to be able to leave the country.

This was the second time Demjanjuk, a retired auto factory worker, was sentenced in connection with Nazi crimes.

In the 1980s he was sentenced to death in Israel after a court found him guilty of being "Ivan the terrible", the name given to a sadistic Ukrainian guard at the Treblinka death camp.

But the Supreme Court later overturned the decision after establishing they had the wrong man.

On Thursday, following an 18-month trial, a German court decided he had indeed served as a guard, but under his original name "Ivan Demjanjuk", and at Sobibor.

His German judges said they were convinced he had assisted in the killing of at least 28,060 people, most of them Jews, deported to Sobibor and immediately gassed there between April and August 1943.

The court said Demjanjuk, a former Red Army soldier captured during the war by the Germans, accepted an offer to serve Nazi forces as a prison guard and served at Sobibor from March to September 1943.

He was automatically guilty of assisting in the killings because of the nature of his job there, it found.

Demjanjuk, who pleaded not guilty, kept silent during the trial.

On Thursday, as throughout the trial, he appeared in a wheelchair before being laid down on a hospital bed, his eyes shielded by dark glasses.

He appeared not to follow the case as relayed to him in Ukrainian by an interpreter.

"He's been playing a comedy all the while," said Dutch-born Vera de Jong, 71, who lost both her parents, a grandmother and an aunt at Sobibor.

"I'm happy about the verdict. I'm relieved. He needed to be convincted."

Another co-plaintiff, Rudy Cortissos, also Dutch and whose mother died at Sobibor, said with tears in his eyes that he was "very emotional because he hadn't reckoned on the judge reading out the names of the relatives killed."

The judge listed, one by one, the dates at which they were brought by train to the camp, along with the numbers of those immediately gassed.

The eldest Jew killed during that period was 95, the youngest just days old.

Cortissos told AFP he thought the sentence was "satisfactory," saying that Demjanjuk "will no longer be able to live in peace and freedom... The trial draws a line on the past."

"It's just a pity I never saw his eyes," he added.

Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust institute welcomed the verdict.

"While no trial can bring back those that were murdered, holding those responsible to justice has an important moral and educational role in society," chairman Avner Shalev said.

But Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said the family would appeal and would continue efforts to obtain the "mountain of information still being intentionally concealed by Moscow... and by the US Department of Justice."

"The Germans have built a house of cards and it will not stand for long," he said in an e-mailed statement.

The high-profile trial, seen as one of the last to involve an alleged Nazi war criminal, has led to much soul-searching on the subject of delayed justice.

The fact that the accused was a Ukrainian-born POW being tried in the same country that started the war, perpetrated the Holocaust and recruited Demjanjuk has also raised questions.

Serge Klarsfeld, a French lawyer and Nazi hunter, has expressed frustration with the trial, saying it failed to provide new details about the case and could not prove Demjanjuk's direct participation in the killings.

Much of the prosecution case rested on an SS identity card of one Ivan Demjanjuk, which the defence said was a fake.

Judge Alt said there was "no objective evidence it didn't belong to the accused."

Demjanjuk's lawyer Ulrich Busch welcomed his client's release, saying he would probably be looked after by the Ukrainian community in Munich. Court officials suggested it could take months before an appeal is heard.

© 2011 AFP

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