MUNICH, May 12 – A German court on Thursday found former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, 91, guilty of helping to murder almost 30,000 Jews and gave him a five-year prison sentence.
Presiding judge Ralph Alt told the Munich court he was convinced Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk served at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland "and that as a guard he took part in the murder of at least 28,000 people."
"Demjanjuk and 83 other Travnikis (non-Germans trained by the SS) were sent to Sobibor on March 26, 1943. Demjanjuk stayed there until September \’43," Alt told the packed courtroom in southern Germany.
"During that time more than 50 trains transporting Jews arrived from Holland," he said. "The eldest was born in 1848 …. the youngest was just days old."
Demjanjuk, deported in 2009 from the United States, where he had lived for decades after World War II, listened to the sentence in his wheelchair and was then moved to a stretcher in the courtroom.
As the judge read out his decision, an interpreter translated into Ukrainian for Demjanjuk, who kept on his dark glasses and did not move.
Prosecutors had called for a six-year sentence and the defence had called for him to be acquitted, saying he was innocent. Demjanjuk\’s lawyer said before the verdict was announced that he planned to appeal.
Demjanjuk had been brought into the packed courtroom in a wheelchair on Thursday, as usual, wearing a light-blue baseball cap and an army-like green coat which he took off after arriving.
During the morning session he was offered the chance for the last time to address the court, but he declined.
Demjanjuk has kept silent throughout the 18 months of proceedings, sitting in a wheelchair or lying on a stretcher over 93 hearings. His health was often a cause for concern during the trial, leading to frequent delays.
The former Red Army soldier was captured by German troops in 1942 and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp before signing up to work as a death camp guard. Millions of other Soviet POWs perished.
The prosecution argued that if he worked as a camp guard, by definition, he was guilty of helping to kill all the Jews sent there at the time.
"Foreign volunteers played a vital role in the killings carried out by the Nazis," the judge said Thursday.
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.
He is in fact the first foreigner to be judged in Germany for Nazi war crimes.
His lawyer, Ulrich Busch, has described him as "a victim of Germany\’s justice system".
Earlier he served nearly eight years in an Israeli prison, five of them on death row after being found guilty in the 1980s of being the particularly sadistic "Ivan the Terrible" guard at Treblinka, another death camp.
The Israeli supreme court later overturned the verdict and ordered his release on the grounds that he had likely been wrongly identified.
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.
"The witnesses are all dead and there are no documents because he was only a small fish," Klarsfeld told AFP. A guilty verdict "would open the door to accusations of unfair justice," he said last week.
Much of the prosecution case rested on whether an SS identity card of one Ivan Demjanjuk who was trained with them to become a prison guard and who was sent to Sobibor, is genuine and belonged to the accused.
The defence insists it is a fake, adding that no witnesses could place him at the camp.
Cornelius Nestler, a lawyer for the co-plaintiffs, relatives of those killed at Sobibor, said Germany was duty-bound to prosecute Demjanjuk even though the crimes were committed years ago.
"The judicial system and society do not have the right to ignore the facts, saying we just don\’t want to look at this any more, as used to be the case in the 1950s and 1960s when much of society and much of the justice system felt this way," he told the court.
Follow us on TWITTER @CapitalFM_Kenya