Was Evidence Against Accused Nazi Criminal John Demjanjuk Faked?

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Sebastian Widmann / Pool / Reuters

Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk arrives in a courtroom in Munich April 13, 2011

The Nazi war crimes trial of 91-year-old John Demjanjuk — accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 27,900 Jews at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II — took a new twist on Wednesday when the defense team asked for the trial to be suspended after new revelations emerged suggesting that crucial evidence in the case had been faked.

As lawyers wrapped up their closing arguments in Munich, Demjanjuk's defense attorney drew the judges' attention to an FBI report that had been kept secret for years — and was obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday — which appears to challenge the authenticity of Demjanjuk's alleged Nazi identity card that is central to the prosecution's case. According to the documents which date back to 1985, the FBI believed that KGB agents in the former Soviet Union "quite likely fabricated" evidence as part of a campaign to smear anti-communist émigrés. AP reporters say they discovered the FBI field office report at the National Archives in Maryland, among case files that were declassified after Demjanjuk was deported from the U.S. in May 2009 to face trial in Germany.

Demjanjuk, who was born in Ukraine, is accused of being a guard at the Sobibor death camp from March until September 1943. Given the fact that some 70 years have elapsed since the alleged crimes took place, and there are no living witnesses, prosecutors have encountered difficulties in their case against Demjanjuk and have relied on historical documents, letters, guard-duty rosters and testimony from witnesses who have since died. A key piece of evidence is an alleged SS identity card bearing Demjanjuk's photo, which prosecutors say proves he was at the training camp for SS guards at Trawniki and that he was transferred to Sobibor in March 1943.

An estimated 250,000 people — mostly Jews — were systematically killed at Sobibor. German prosecutors say their investigation shows that Demjanjuk was drafted into the Red Army in 1940, was then taken prisoner by German forces in 1942 and volunteered to work as a SS death camp guard, rather than face the prospect of dying in captivity. "As soon as he arrived at Sobibor, he must have known its purpose was the extermination of the Jews delivered there," prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz told the Munich courtroom in his closing arguments on March 22. "But despite that, he did not desert, although he would have had the chance while off duty or during assignments outside the camp."

Responding to the FBI report which purports to cast doubt on the photo identity card, Lutz told TIME that "extensive forensic tests have been carried out on Demjanjuk's identity card ... and they show that it is genuine." Lutz dismissed the findings of the FBI report as "dated," adding: "They are the view of a single FBI officer back in 1985 and this opinion has since changed."

During the extraordinary trial which has been bogged down by delays since it began in November 2009, including Demjanjuk's health issues — he suffers from a bone marrow disease and other ailments — prosecutors insisted Demjanjuk was an integral part of the "Nazi machinery," and as a prison guard he shared the Nazi ideology and was responsible for forcing Jews, mostly deported from the Netherlands, into the gas chambers at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk was extradited from the U.S., where he had settled in 1952, following a protracted legal battle and theatrical scenes as his relatives claimed that he was too ill to face a court. Ever since the trial finally got under way, Demjanjuk has followed most of the proceedings from a bed in the courtroom, wearing his now familiar baseball cap and sunglasses. The retired Ohio autoworker rejects the charges, saying he never worked as a Nazi guard. Defense attorney Ulrich Busch has long claimed that the Demjanjuk's SS ID card was a fake and on Wednesday pointed to the FBI report that says an investigation appears to have revealed a Soviet scheme to discredit "prominent émigré dissidents speaking out publicly and/or leading émigré groups in opposition to the Soviet leadership in the USSR."

This isn't the first time Demjanjuk has been accused of being a Nazi criminal. Back in 1988, he was sentenced to death by a court in Israel after he was identified as the sadistic guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" from the Treblinka concentration camp. But Israel's Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1993 after statements from other former guards identified another Ukrainian as the notorious Nazi guard.

The current trial in Germany, likely to be the last major case dealing with alleged war crimes of the Nazi regime, is due to last until mid-May. Prosecutors are demanding a six-year jail term for Demjanjuk, less than the maximum 15-year sentence in Germany, taking into account his age and the time served in an Israeli prison. For relatives of those killed at Sobibor — who joined the trial in Munich as co-plaintiffs under German law — it's been a long, frustrating wait. And despite Demjanjuk's old age and frail health, they believe that it is never too late for justice to be done.