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Key Demjanjuk Defense Witness Nearly Bolts During Testimony

A key witness for the defense of suspected war criminal John Demjanjuk threatened to walk out of the court Wednesday because he said he was insulted by the cross-examination of state attorney Yona Blatman.

But Count Nicolae Tolstoi, a Russian-born British historian, changed his mind after presiding Judge Dov Levin warned that if Tolstoi withdrew, his testimony of the past two days would be expunged from the record, thus dealing a major setback to the defense.

Tolstoi, a distant relative of the famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi, insists that a vital prosecution document which could convict Demjanjuk may well be a KGB forgery. He also maintains that Demjanjuk’s alibi “is fully consistent with historical events as they are known to me.”

The document in question is an SS identity card, obtained by the prosecution from Soviet sources, which bears a photograph of Demjanjuk at about age 22 and proves that the bearer was a Soviet army defector trained by the SS for voluntary guard duty at the Treblinka death camp.

Demjanjuk, 66, a UKrainian-born retired automobile worker from Cleveland, Ohio, claims he was recruited into the Red Army and captured by the Germans following the battle of Kerch in the spring of 1942. He says he remained a prisoner of war until he joined the Vlassov Brigade, a unit of the German army consisting of UKrainians and other anti-Soviet elements.

Therefore, according to Demjanjuk, he could not have been at Treblinka from the summers of 1942 to 1943 and was not the brutal guard known as “Ivan the Terrible,” who operated the gas chambers.

The defense contends that Demjanjuk did not mention his status as a POW when he applied to the United Nations for help in 1948 out of fear that he might have been forcibly returned to the Soviet Union.

Tolstoi, who specializes in Soviet involvement in World War II, testified that Demjanjuk’s explanation coincided with the facts. Refugees were returned to the Soviet Union against their will until 1950, Tolstoi said.

The historian said that from personal experience he knew that the KGB could easily have forged the ID card to incriminate Demjanjuk because of his Ukrainian nationalist activities. No one can categorically state whether the document is authentic or not, Tolstoi declared.

He objected vehemently to Blatman’s suggestion that his admitted anti-Soviet bias could have influenced his testimony. He also took offense at Blatman’s questioning of his professional credentials. The prosecutor cited unfavorable reviews of some of his books.

Tolstoi said he was “shocked” by the prosecutor’s “insulting manner” and could no longer “participate in these proceedings.” Blatman later apologized to the witness, saying he had not intended to imply he was not an expert in certain areas.

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