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Former US citizen convicted in Nazi camp deaths

Demjanjuk, 91, receives 5-year prison sentence

John Demjanjuk left the Munich courtroom after he was convicted of accessory to murder for his role as a Nazi death camp guard. He was ordered released from custody pending his appeal. John Demjanjuk left the Munich courtroom after he was convicted of accessory to murder for his role as a Nazi death camp guard. He was ordered released from custody pending his appeal. (Reuters)
By David Rising
Associated Press / May 13, 2011

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MUNICH — Retired US autoworker John Demjanjuk was convicted yesterday of accessory to murder as a low-level Nazi death camp guard, a groundbreaking decision setting a precedent that could open the floodgates to a new wave of prosecutions in Germany.

Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, reflecting the number of people who were killed in the Sobibor death camp during a time in 1943 when the court said evidence shows he stood guard there.

But the 91-year-old will spend no immediate time behind bars for now. Presiding Judge Ralph Alt ordered him released from custody pending his appeal — a process that could take at least a year. Though such a move is common under the German system, it drew the immediate ire of some of those who had been pushing for Demjanjuk’s conviction.

“We don’t think that that’s appropriate given the heinous nature of his crimes,’’ Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Still, Zuroff called the conviction “a very important victory for justice.’’

Though scores of Nazi war criminals have been tried and convicted in Germany, in this case there was no evidence that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime. His prosecution was based on the theory that if Demjanjuk was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing — the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts.

Former federal prosecutor Thomas Walther, who led the investigation that prompted Germany to prosecute Demjanjuk, said that his office has numerous cases that have been investigated but shelved, which could now be reopened.

“It could be very soon that more are brought to the table,’’ he said. “This case is a door opener.’’

It was not clear when Demjanjuk would be released from prison, nor where he would go.

Alt said Demjanjuk did not pose a flight risk because of his advanced age, poor health, and the fact that the defendant, deported from the United States two years ago, is stateless.

Alt said that meant there were no grounds to hold him. “It’s the law, and so it’s justice,’’ he added. “I say he’s guilty, but it’s not a final verdict.’’

John Demjanjuk Jr. said that his father needs daily medical attention and would probably need to be moved into an assisted care facility — the costs of which would be paid by the German government — but that details are still being decided.

In handing down the court’s ruling, Alt called Demjanjuk a piece of the Nazis’ “machinery of destruction.’’

Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair in front of the judges as they announced their verdict, but showed no reaction. He has denied the charges, but declined the opportunity to make a final statement to the court.

Integral to the prosecution’s case was an SS identity card that allegedly shows a picture of a young Demjanjuk and indicates that he trained at the SS Trawniki camp and was posted to Sobibor.

Though court experts said the card appears genuine, the defense maintains it is a fake produced by the Soviet KGB.

The US Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations also has said the card is genuine, but documents recently unearthed by the AP indicate that the FBI at one time had doubts similar to those aired by Demjanjuk’s defense about the evidence, though the material was never turned over to the agency.

Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, has been stripped of his US citizenship and has been in custody in Germany since his deportation two years ago.

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