New Trial for Nazi War Crimes Suspect?

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Mark Duncan / AP

John Demjanjuk arrives at the federal building in Cleveland for an immigration hearing.

You might not expect the arrival in Munich of a retired auto mechanic from Cleveland, Ohio, to excite much attention. But when John Demjanjuk finally lands in Germany, the nation's press will be waiting for him. Sentenced to death over 20 years ago by the Israeli authorities as a Nazi war criminal but later freed when fresh evidence undermined the basis of his conviction, Demjanjuk again expects to face charges, this time alleging that he helped to murder many thousands of Jews at a Nazi death camp. If the case proceeds, with Demjanjuk now 89 and remaining witnesses also elderly, this could be the last such prosecution for crimes committed during the Holocaust.

Germany issued an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk in early March, based on evidence presented to Munich prosecutors that he served as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland in 1943. An estimated 29,000 Jews were killed in gas chambers in the months that Demjanjuk allegedly served at the camp. A U.S. Judge, Wayne R Iskra, last week stayed Demjanjuk's deportation to Germany, but has now reversed that decision, and Demjanjuk's expected appeal to the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals is his last defense against extradition. (See pictures of Kristallnacht.)

Demjanjuk is second on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's hit list of most wanted Nazi war criminals after concentration camp doctor Dr. Aribert Heim, but there is no evidence Demjanjuk was member or a supporter of Germany's National Socialist party or served in the army of the Third Reich. Instead, he is alleged to have been a lowly member of a unit of ruthless guards who were trained by the Nazis in the village of Trawniki, Poland, to run the death camps. The Trawniki unit was comprised of Ukrainian volunteers from the Red Army, held prisoner by German forces. (See pictures of the Nazis in Paris.)

He has always denied allegations that he worked in the camps or ever took part in war crimes. He says he was a Soviet soldier and taken prisoner by the Germans before going to the United States. Born in the Ukraine, Demjanjuk emigrated to the U.S. in 1952 from Germany, and became an American citizen. But in 1975 his name appeared on a Soviet list of Ukrainian war criminals living in the U.S. Immigration authorities investigated, concluding on the testimony of survivors in Israel that Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible," a notoriously brutal guard at the death camp in Treblinka, Poland.

He was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and extradited to Israel to stand trial in 1986, receiving a death sentence two years later. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, evidence emerged that another guard at Treblinka might be Ivan, and the Israeli Supreme Court eventually overturned Demjanjuk's conviction in 1993. (Read TIME's 2 min. bio on Demjanjuk.)

Although he regained his U.S. citizenship and returned to Cleveland, the U.S. Justice Department filed a case against Demjanjuk in 1999 on the basis of evidence produced by Israeli prosecutors that he had been a guard at Sobibor and other camps. Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship a second time three years later for lying about his role at the camps on his original immigration documents.

U.S. authorities were unable to deport Demjanjuk because no country was willing to take him. Then last year, Germany's chief Nazi war crimes investigator, Kurt Schrimm, asked prosecutors in Munich, where Demjanjuk lived before leaving for the U.S, to charge him as an accessory to the war crimes at Sobibor. It is believed over 200,000 victims perished at the camp.

Before this push to prevent Demjanjuk's extradition, his court-appointed lawyer in Germany, Günther Maull, said he expected his client to be deported and charged. "I'm proceeding now on the assumption that [Demjanjuk] will be charged, and that the case will be admitted to the courts," Maull told TIME. Demanjuk will travel on a commercial flight accompanied by a doctor, a nurse, and a law enforcement officer, and on arrival, will be driven to secure area within the airport and asked to make a statement, according to the lawyer. Maull says he will advise Demjanjuk to remain silent, and then prosecutors have 14 days to file formal charges.

The German authorities have already confirmed that the Munich court has jurisdiction over the case and established the authenticity of an ID card that places Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor in 1943. Maull says that only the card's date has been ruled authentic, and that it could still be a forgery produced by the Russians to implicate Demjanjuk. (See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)

That's not the only line of defense. "There is no one single action that [Demjanjuk] is being accused of," says Maull. The court will therefore have to decided whether simply being present at the camp as a guard while the gassings were taking place would make someone an accessory. "This case enters new legal territory," says Maull. It says something about the enduring horror of the Holocaust that such ancient history should still be setting precedents.

See pictures of Adolf Hitler's Rise to Power.

Read a TIME story on Demjanjuk.