How One Nazi War Criminal's Case Could Bring Others to Justice

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Matthias Schrader / AP

John Demjanjuk leaves the court room in Munich, southern Germany, on Thursday, May 12, 2011.

Ending a trial that had dragged on for almost 18 months, a court in the south German city of Munich on Thursday convicted 91-year-old John Demjanjuk of being an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland and sentenced him to five years in prison. The presiding judge, Ralph Alt, said the court found that Demjanjuk served as a Nazi guard at the camp in 1943 and, as such, played a crucial role in the "Nazi machinery."

The court sentenced Demjanjuk to five years in prison, and then set him free, saying he would not have to stay in jail pending his appeal — a decision that provoked a furious response from the families of Holocaust victims. Judge Alt defended the decision by noting that Demjanjuk had already spent two years in detention awaiting trial and, being both old and stateless, is not considered a flight risk.

Throughout the trial, Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, wearing his trademark baseball cap and sun-glasses, remained silent about the charges leveled against him. When the verdict was read out on Thursday, he looked on impassively from his wheelchair. "He was part of the machinery of extermination," the judge told the packed courtroom, adding that the court was convinced Demjanjuk served as a guard at Sobibor from March 27, 1943 to mid-September 1943. As he delivered the verdict, Judge Alt described how thousands of Jews arrived at the camp on trains from the Netherlands, were forced to undress, and then were herded into the gas chambers — where they desperately tried to open the doors from the inside before they met their deaths.

Some of the victims' relatives, who had traveled to Munich for the verdict, broke down in tears as the judge read out the long list of those who were killed at Sobibor. "For me, it is justice. This chapter is finally over — he received a sentence," Jan Goedel, whose parents and grandparents died at the camp, told reporters.

Thursday's verdict was the culmination of a long and tortuous legal battle. In 1988, Demjanjuk was sentenced to death by a court in Israel after he was identified as the brutal guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" from the Treblinka concentration camp. But the verdict was overturned in 1993 by Israel's Supreme Court, which found Demjanjuk was the victim of mistaken identity. The trial in Munich began in November 2009, after Demjanjuk was extradited to Germany from the U.S., where he had settled in Ohio in 1952.

Germans have been watching the trial closely, as the nation continues to struggle to come to terms with its Nazi history. German authorities have recently stepped up efforts to bring suspected Nazi war criminals to justice after facing criticism in the past that some suspects had evaded prosecution. In January, German tabloid Bild reported on documents from Germany's foreign intelligence service which revealed that the country's spy agency knew where Adolf Eichmann, chief architect of the Holocaust, was hiding in 1952, eight years before he was captured in Buenos Aires by Israeli agents. Back then, Eichmann was the most significant Nazi war criminal still at large. The revelations were heralded as a "sensation" by historians and commentators, who said they added further weight to the accusation that West Germany lacked the political will to put former Nazis on trial in the post-war years.

But these days German authorities are eager to show that they are serious about bringing Nazi criminals to justice. And Demjanjuk's case may have made that task a little easier. Although the prosecutors weren't able to prove that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime, his presence at Sobibor was enough to convict him of being an accessory to murder. Some historians say the verdict could pave the way for future war-crimes trials. According to Jürgen Zarusky, an expert in Nazi history at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, the quest to bring surviving Nazis to justice doesn't end with Demjanjuk — there are several other Nazi war-crimes cases pending. "This verdict could make it easier for future prosecutions of Nazi war crimes suspects in death camps," says Zarusky, "because [it] has shown that having been a guard in an extermination camp is sufficient proof for a court that the person concerned was complicit in murder."

Following the court ruling on Thursday, Demjanjuk's attorney, Ulrich Busch, immediately filed an appeal and told TIME he hoped the retired autoworker would one day be able to join his family back in the U.S. "John Demjanjuk is free, but he has no passport and no citizenship and he will have to stay in Germany for the time being," Busch said. "He's a very old and sick man and he should be with his family."

But Jewish groups and the families of Holocaust victims are far from happy. "Demjanjuk's release is totally inappropriate given the fact he was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of tens of thousands of Jews," says Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and director of the center's Israel office. "It's an insult to Demjanjuk's victims."