Demjanjuk trial begins in Germany

November 30, 2009 12:00 am

, Germany, Nov 30 – Nurses pushed 89-year-old John Demjanjuk in a wheelchair into court on Monday to face charges that he herded tens of thousands of Jews to their death in a Nazi gas chamber in World War II.

Demjanjuk, who is accused of being an accessory in the deaths of 27,900 Jews and others at the Sobibor camp in Poland, groaned but kept his eyes closed as he was rolled into the court accompanied by two medical staff and two guards for what is likely to be the last major Nazi trial.

The Demjanjuk family says that the defendant is gravely ill. Wearing a baseball cap, a leather jacket and thick glasses, and covered in a light blue blanket, he was brought from prison in an ambulance with blacked-out windows.

Demjanjuk denies being at Sobibor, one of a network of camps erected by Adolf Hitler\’s Germany in Eastern Europe with the sole purpose of mass extermination.

Prosecutors say they have an SS identity card bearing his name and transfer orders. He is accused of being a guard there from March to September 1943. Profile: John Demjanjuk

If convicted, the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk will almost certainly spend the rest of his days behind bars. If not, he will face an uncertain future as he is stateless, having been stripped of his US citizenship.

The start of the trial was delayed as organisers were overwhelmed by large numbers of relatives of people killed by the Nazis, as well as journalists, trying to get in.

There are more than 30 co-plaintiffs in the case, most of whom lost family members at Sobibor.

There are no living eyewitnesses who saw Demjanjuk there, so prosecutors will rely heavily on written testimony by people now dead.

Max Flam, 43 from Amsterdam, started queuing at 5.30 am clutching a sepia photograph of his grandparents, among 13 relatives who died at Sobibor.

"I don\’t mind what he gets, my goal is justice," Flam told AFP.

Thomas Blatt, 82, who survived Sobibor and who is to testify in January, said: "I don\’t want revenge against Demjanjuk, I just want him to say the truth."

Robert Cohen, a gaunt 83-year-old from Amsterdam whose parents and brother died at Sobibor, and who himself survived Auschwitz — and has a tattoo to prove it — was in no doubt that camp guards had blood on their hands.

"If he (Demjanjuk) was there, he killed more than 100 people per day — per day! That would be the worst crime ever," Cohen told reporters.

Activists showed little sympathy for Demjanjuk\’s state of health.

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, said: "It\’s a pathetic attempt to appear more cripple than he is. He belongs in Hollywood."

"He has a vested interest in appearing as feeble as possible."

Demjanjuk says he was a Red Army soldier captured in 1942 by the Germans and then moved around various prisoner-of-war camps, but Israeli and US courts have already established he was at Sobibor, one of many non-German guards.

Demjanjuk\’s lawyer, Ulrich Busch, said that even if it could be proved his client was in Sobibor, he would have been there under duress and could not now be held responsible for the atrocities carried out.

"We know in our hearts that my dad never harmed anyone. And we know based on the evidence that there is absolutely no evidence that he harmed even one person," his son John Demjanjuk junior told AFP.

Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 for being "Ivan the Terrible", a sadistic Nazi guard, but after five years on death row the conviction was overturned when Israel established it had the wrong man.

Despite his ailments, medical experts have found Demjanjuk fit to stand trial, although proceedings are to be limited to two 90-minute sessions per day.


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