JERUSALEM (Nov. 27)
The trial of alleged Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk was formally opened in Jerusalem District Court Wednesday and, after a 40 minute hearing, was adjourned until January 19.
The Ukrainian-born former resident of Cleveland, Ohio is charged with responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and others at the Treblinka death camp during World War II where he is alleged to have served as a guard, known to inmates as “Ivan the Terrible,” because of his unmitigated brutality. According to the charges, he personally operated the gas chambers.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Demjanjuk and his American lawyer, Mark O’Connor, repeated the defense contention of mistaken identity. “I am not Ivan the Terrible whom they want to hang,” a visibly nervous Demjanjuk told the court.
The official charges against the accused are war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against persecuted people. Asked how his client pleaded, O’Connor said “We cannot deny that such terrible things were done in the camps, and we would therefore be prepared to admit to many of the charges, but the accused is not the man to whom the charge sheet refers.”
The small courtroom was filled mainly with Justice Ministry officials and the media. The prisoner spoke in his native Ukrainian, translated into Hebrew and English. An argument arose when the defense asked that the Ukrainian translator be replaced on grounds that he is to be a prosecution witness. Another person of Ukrainian origin took over the translation.
CLAIM BY DEMJANJUK’S LAWYER
O’Connor’s claim that his client was unfit to stand trial at this time because of an injury sustained when the prison van skidded on the way from Ramle prison to Jerusalem, was rejected by court President Judge Dov Levin. He said he was willing to hear Demjanjuk’s complaint in his private chambers but would not admit it to the trial proceedings.
Another complaint, voiced by O’Connor, was that he has been forced to appear in court without the assistance of an Israeli lawyer. He under scored this by apologizing repeatedly for his “imperfect knowledge of Israeli law.”
O’Connor was given special dispensation by the Justice Ministry several months ago to plead in Israeli courts. An Israeli lawyer was to be appointed to assist him on points of law. O’Connor told reporters after the hearing Wednesday that he had spoken to six attorneys referred to him by the Israel Bar Association but none was prepared to give his time, “a year or year-and-a-half,” according to O’Connor, to serve at the trial.
“Certainly, I cannot pay the fees of Israeli lawyers who have asked for $400,000 or $600,000 fees,” O’Connor said.
Demjanjuk, 66, was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 for lying about his alleged Nazi past. He is the first Nazi war crimes suspect extradited to Israel and will be the first to stand trial here since Adolf Eichmann who was executed in 1962.