Trial of alleged Nazi prison guard begins | German News | DW | 30.11.2009
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German News

Trial of alleged Nazi prison guard begins

The trial of alleged Nazi prison guard John Demjanjuk has begun. With many of those accused of Nazi war crimes deceased or very elderly, this could be the last trial of its kind in Germany.

Accused Nazi prison guard John Demjanjuk

Demjanjuk is on trial in Munich

After delays caused by the large crowds of relatives of Holocaust victims hoping to enter the courtroom, the trial of Ukranian-born John Demjanjuk began in Munich on Monday. He faces charges that he assisted in the murder of 27,900 people as a guard at the Nazi death camp Sobibor.

Demjanjuk, 89, entered the courtroom in a wheelchair. He has been in German custody since his deportation from the United States last May. His trial is expected to run until May 2010.

Demjanjuk has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with justice officials for decades. He emigrated to the United States in 1951 and became a naturalized citizen in 1958. He was extradited to Israel in 1981 and faced trial, where he was sentenced to death, although the Israeli Supreme Court later overturned the conviction.

The I.D. card allegedly showing Demjanjuk's Nazi past

Demjanjuk says he was a victim of the Nazi regime

He returned to his home near Cleveland in 1993 and his citizenship was later restored. But a new investigation was opened and in 2002, a federal judge rescinded his citizenship and Demjanjuk was ordered to be deported in 2005.

Demjanjuk has said he was shunted around several German prison camps after being captured during his time in the Red Army, but he denies having been at Sobibor or having had any role in the Holocaust.

Asked during his Jerusalem trial whether he had ever killed anyone, he cried plaintively: "Never. I cannot even kill a chicken. My wife invariably did it."

But prosecutors have an identity card bearing his name and transfer orders from Trawniki, a notorious training camp for Nazi guards, to Sobibor.

Trial marks policy shift

According to Hans-Juergen Boemelburg, a historian at the University of Giessen, Monday's trial is especially rare since most Nazi war crimes trials have focused on German nationals.

Boemelburg says Germany began developing an interest in eastern European suspects like Demjanjuk in the 1990s as relations with former communist states improved after of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Damjanjuk's ambulance arriving at the Munich courtroom

Demjanjuk arrived at the courthouse in an ambulance

Since many suspected war criminals are now very old, there has been a surge of arrests and cases related to war-time atrocities. Nazi hunters say they are pleased with the shift in policy from Berlin.

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, which tracks suspected Nazi war criminals, welcomed Monday's trial in Munich. He said for years only high-level officers and dignitaries of the Third Reich were judged in German courts.

Demjanjuk was tried in the Israeli court in 1988 on charges that he was a guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" at Treblinka, a camp where 870,000 people died. However, the conviction was overturned in 1993 when records from the former Soviet Union showed that another man was more likely the guard.

Editor: Kyle James

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