As Demjanjuk Appeal Winds Down, U.S. Court Raises Doubt on Proof

The chief prosecutor in the trial of alleged war criminal John Demjanjuk urged the High Court of Justice once more Monday to uphold his 1988 conviction and death sentence.

But as state prosecutor Michael Shaked completed his arguments before the five-judge panel hearing Demjanjuk’s appeal, an unexpected initiative by a federal appeals court in Ohio cast some doubt over the strength of the case against the Ukrainian-born defendant.

Acting on its own initiative last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ordered the reopening of the case that resulted in Demjanjuk’s 1986 extradition to stand trial in Israel.

The U.S. court said the extradition warrant “may have been improvidently issued because it was based on erroneous information.”

The federal court acted independent of any request for a rehearing from either side.

Its action appears to have been prompted by newly available evidence from the archives of the former Soviet Union, which the defense counsel here says refutes the identification of Demjanjuk as the sadistic Treblinka death camp guard “Ivan the Terrible,” who operated the gas chambers and tortured Jews on the way to their deaths.

DISPUTE OVER SOBIBOR EVIDENCE

That evidence, which includes testimony given by other Treblinka guards over 40 years ago, points to a Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko as the dreaded “Ivan.”

So it was argued by Yoram Sheftel, Demjanjuk’s Israeli lawyer, who last week urged the High Court of Justice to acquit his client.

Prosecutor Shaked obtained a conviction two years ago on the basis of eyewitnesses who identified Demjanjuk. Eyewitness identification was also key to his extradition, which the U.S. court has now called into question.

Demjanjuk has insisted from the outset that he was a victim of mistaken identity. A longtime resident of Cleveland, he was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981 for having lied about his wartime activities when he obtained it.

But the state prosecutor has dismissed the new evidence as irrelevant. He has said that Demjanjuk may have used the common name Marchenko, which was his mother’s maiden name.

Moreover, he produced his own new evidence purporting to show that Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor camp in Poland, as well as at Treblinka.

Sheftel demanded last week that the court disregard evidence of alleged offenses at Sobibor because it was not mentioned in Demjanjuk’s indictment. The prosecution replied that was only because the evidence was not available then.

When Justice Aharon Barak remarked that there may not be sufficient evidence regarding Demjanjuk’s alleged service at Sobibor, Shaked replied that where offenses against the Jewish people are concerned, the exact location does not matter.

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