Demjanjuk Trial Begins in Jerusalem
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Demjanjuk Trial Begins in Jerusalem

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The trial of John Demjanjuk opened in Jerusalem District Court Monday and immediately became embroiled in legal argument over the defendant’s identity and the court’s right to try him.

Demjanjuk’s American attorney, Mark O’Connor, maintained that the accused is not the former Treblinka death camp guard who was known to the inmates as “Ivan the Terrible” because of his brutality and who was held responsible for the deaths in the gas chambers of 850,000 Jews and thousands of Gypsies.

Furthermore, O’Connor insisted, the Ukrainian-born retired automobile worker from Cleveland, Ohio, is a victim of evidence fabricated in the Soviet Union, the victim of a KGB plot; and that he was extradited from the U.S. on a murder charge but is now being charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people.

O’Connor also challenged Israel’s right to bring him to trial because the alleged crimes were not committed on Israel’s soil, were not committed against Israeli citizens, and were not committed by a citizen of Israel.

Judge Don Levin, president of the three-judge panel hearing the case, enjoined O’Connor repeatedly to confine himself strictly to the matter of jurisdiction and to leave the question of identity to a later stage, after the prosecution has presented its evidence. But O’Connor insisted that the issues were intertwined, and the court allowed him to present his arguments on both jurisdiction and substantial proof. In addition to Levin, who is a Justice of the Supreme Court, the panel consists of two Jerusalem District Court judges, Dalia Dorner and Zvi Tal.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began legal proceedings in 1977 to strip Demjanjuk of his American citizenship on grounds that he lied about his collaboration with the Nazis when he entered the U.S. In 1984 he was ordered deported as a suspected war criminal. He was extradited to Israel for trial in February 1986, a year almost to the day before the opening of his trial.

The courtroom is a 300-seat converted cinema house. Its gallery was packed Monday with local and foreign reporters and television camera crews. The 66-year-old Demjanjuk, father of two, entered the prisoner’s dock flanked by two policemen. He wore an ill-fitting brown suit and waved to the spectators.

Seated directly behind him was his son, John Demjanjuk Jr., and a Ukrainian Orthodox cleric, Bishop Antony, who came from the U.S. to attend the early stage of the trial and offer his assistance to the defendant. Ukrainian-American groups are believed to be financing Demjanjuk’s defense.

The trial is expected to last at least three months. The proceedings are conducted in Hebrew and translated simultaneously into English and Ukrainian. Attorney O’Connor’s words are translated from English to Hebrew by an interpreter at his side.


His assertion that the charges brought against Demjanjuk are inconsistent with the charge of murder on which he was extradited from the U.S. was rebutted by State Attorney Yona Blattman, who noted that the American courts and the U.S. Department of Justice were fully aware of the crimes that Israel attributes to Demjanjuk and therefore the legal technicalities of the charge sheet were not relevant.

Blattman is assisted by State Attorneys Dennis Goldman, Michael Shaked and Michael Horovitz. O’Connor has an Israeli lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, assisting him on points of Israeli law. Sheftel told reporters before the trial opened that he was “eager to do battle” because he is convinced Demjanjuk is a victim of mistaken identity. He said he would not have taken the case otherwise.


A declared purpose of the trial is to acquaint the younger generation of Israelis with the terrible realities of the Holocaust. The Israel Defense Force and the Education Ministry plan to bring soldiers and high school students to attend the sessions, which will be held four days a week.

The proceedings are being broadcast live by Israel Radio. Galei Zahal, the Army Radio, is offering frequent updates, summaries and commentaries throughout the day. But Israel Television declined to broadcast the trial live on grounds that it is too expensive and there is insufficient public interest.

Demjanjuk is the first suspected Nazi war criminal ever extradited to Israel and the second to be tried here. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem 25 years ago and was executed as a principal organizer of the “Final Solution.” Demjanjuk is being tried as an implementor. He faces a death sentence if convicted.

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