State prosecutors representing the government of Germany have formally charged 89-year-old John Demjanjuk with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder for his alleged role as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor death camp during World War II.
Sobibor was located in Nazi-occupied Poland.
There have been prior attempts to charge John Demjanjuk with Nazi war crimes; he once faced an Israeli courtroom as the suspected Ivan the Terrible, a murderous SS guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps during 1942-1943. He was later acquitted on the charges of being the particularly savage Ivan, but now faces charges of being a Nazi guard of a different identity.
Demjanjuk claims he is innocent and that the case against him is one of mistaken identity. Born in the Ukraine, he claims he was a Red Army soldier who was captured by the Germans and spent the war as a POW (prisoner of war).
The evidence obtained by the United States Justice Department appears otherwise: among the documents it presented is a photo ID that shows Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor. The ID also reveals that he was credentialed at Trawniki, a special SS training facility for Nazi personnel that was located in German-occupied Poland.
Demjanjuk arrived in Germany in May after years of fighting extradition procedures in the United States, where he had immigrated following the war. A federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio cleared the retired auto worker for deportation several weeks ago.
“This is obviously an important step forward,” commented the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, in response to Germany’s submission of formal charges.
“We hope that the trial itself will be expedited so that justice will be achieved and he can be given the appropriate punishment,” Zuroff said. “The effort to bring Demjanjuk to justice sends a very powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrator.”
His attorneys have tried to delay and even altogether avoid having Demjanjuk face a German judge, claiming he was too frail. But doctors earlier this month determined that he was fit to stand trial, provided that the proceedings are limited to two 90-minute sessions per day.
Charges of accessory to murder in Germany carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, and if convicted, Demjanjuk could conceivably receive consecutive sentences that would total thousands of years – well past the length of whatever life the elderly suspected Nazi has left.
It is not yet clear when the trial will begin.