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National Perspective | UPDATE

U.S. Renews Legal Fight to Deport Demjanjuk

Alleged Nazi was acquitted of charges that he led mass killings at Treblinka. New accusations involve different death camp.

May 20, 1999|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department renewed its long legal battle Wednesday against alleged Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, seeking to strip the retired Cleveland auto worker of his U.S. citizenship.

For Demjanjuk, 79, the action marked the latest in a 22-year-old case with many twists and turns. He won a major court victory six years ago when he was acquitted of charges that he was "Ivan the Terrible," the sadistic operator of gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

The original case had caused a judge to rebuke Justice Department lawyers for "reckless disregard for their duty" to provide exculpatory evidence to Demjanjuk's attorneys.

The new complaint, filed by the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, is based on separate evidence that Demjanjuk was an armed guard at the Sobibor death camp, established by the Nazis to exterminate Jewish civilians, and that the native Ukrainian first began working for the Nazis at a base camp in Poland in 1942.

The court filing described "a killing center" near the village of Sobibor, where Demjanjuk and others "met arriving transports of Jews, forcibly unloaded the Jews from the trains, compelled them to strip naked and drove them into gas chambers." It suggested that this evidence was based on "captured wartime and other pertinent documents" in addition to some witnesses.

"This was an overdue and smart action on the part of our government," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has followed the case closely.

"They made a mistake the last time around, because the case was totally dependent on his being Ivan the Terrible, even though they had evidence of his involvement at Sobibor. Demjanjuk's victims have earned the right for us to pursue justice to its fullest dimension," Hier said.

Ed Nishnic, Demjanjuk's son-in-law and spokesman, reasserted his innocence Wednesday and attacked the Justice Department for pursuing him further.

The first case accused Demjanjuk "of being the most heinous war criminal of World War II [but] proved that the Department of Justice defrauded the American courts, deceived the American people and destroyed Mr. Demjanjuk's good name," Nishnic said.

"Hopefully," he added, "it will not take another 22 years to clear his name once again."

The Justice Department first accused Demjanjuk of being Ivan the Terrible in 1977 and four years later a federal judge concurred. He was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited in 1986 to Israel, where he was convicted of crimes against humanity by an Israeli trial court and sentenced to death.

But Israel's Supreme Court found that reasonable doubt existed about whether Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, a guard who hacked and tortured his victims before running the engines that pumped lethal gas into the chambers where more than 800,000 men, women and children were executed.

The Israeli high court, in releasing Demjanjuk after seven years' imprisonment, said there had been evidence suggesting that Ivan the Terrible was another man, named Marchenko, who has not been seen since the end of the war.

Returning to a quiet existence in Cleveland, Demjanjuk won a second court victory last year when U.S. District Judge Paul R. Matia--citing criticism of government lawyers by an appellate court panel--declared that government lawyers acted "with reckless disregard for their duty to the court" by withholding evidence in 1981 that could have helped Demjanjuk's attorneys.

Matia restored Demjanjuk's citizenship but said he would allow the Justice Department to reinstitute denaturalization proceedings based on other evidence.

Demjanjuk has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying that he was a prisoner of the Nazis during World War II, having been captured while serving in the Soviet Army. But U.S. prosecutors maintain that he falsified his background when he applied for U.S. citizenship.

The latest complaint asserted that Demjanjuk and other men at Sobibor participated in Operation Reinhard, involving the systematic extermination of Jews in occupied Poland.

During this operation, 1.7 million Jews were rounded up and murdered by mass shootings or by poison gas, the department charged. Tens of thousands of others were confined to forced-labor camps and exploited as slave laborers until they either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion or disease, the court filing alleged.

In addition, Demjanjuk worked for a time as an armed guard at the Majdanek concentration camp, where prisoners who could not work were gassed, shot or hanged, the court papers said.

"People say, 'Well, Demjanjuk is an old man and he's been through a lot,' " Rabbi Hier commented. "But what he has been through is minuscule compared with what his victims were put through. I believe he will be deported, which is a measure of justice."

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