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Demjanjuk Conviction Won’t Stand if Identity in Doubt, Court Warns

Israel’s High Court of Justice has given its first hint that it could overturn the conviction and death sentence of John Demjanjuk for war crimes allegedly committed at the Treblinka death camp.

That possibility was raised Monday when Justice Aharon Barak told the Israeli prosecutor in the case that the conviction would not hold up if there were reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was indeed the sadistic Treblinka death camp guard, known as “Ivan the Terrible,” who tortured Jews on their way to the gas chambers.

The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, 72, was convicted in 1988 by a special panel of the Jerusalem District Court and sentenced to hang But new evidence acquired from the archives of the former Soviet Union might support the defense contention that he is a victim of mistaken identity.

That viewpoint suddenly gained credibility last week when a U.S. appeals court in Ohio ordered the reopening of the case that resulted in the 1986 extradition of Demjanjuk, a longtime resident of Cleveland, to stand trial in Israel.

The federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, acting independent of any request for a rehearing from either side, called June 5 for reconsideration of the case on the grounds that the extradition warrant “may have been improvidently issued because it was based on erroneous information.”

That touched the core of the case, since Demjanjuk’s extradition and his later conviction here were both based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, survivors of Treblinka who identified him as the dreaded “Ivan.”

SOBIBOR EVIDENCE AT ISSUE

The new evidence included the testimony of “wachmanner,” Soviet prisoners of war who worked as concentration camp guards for their Nazi captors. They pointed to another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko, as the Treblinka killer.

Chief prosecutor Michael Shaked argued forcefully before the High Court on Monday that the new evidence was irrelevant and the testimony of the wachmanner was especially suspect.

He said the court should uphold the word of Treblinka survivors over that of the wachmanner, many of whom were executed by the Soviets for war crimes more than 40 years ago.

But Justice Barak observed that even if their testimony was questionable, it could raise the reasonable doubt sought by the defense. That suggestion indicated that Israel’s supreme court may have doubts about the identity of “Ivan.”

Shaked also introduced new evidence that Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where some 250,000 Jews perished, as well as at Treblinka, where at least 800,000 died.

He said Demjanjuk should be tried for offenses committed at Sobibor even if the charges against him at Treblinka are not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

But legal experts here said the court would hesitate to convict Demjanjuk for other offenses lest that create the impression that Israel’s legal system is out to convict the man at any price.

Demjanjuk’s Israeli attorney, Yoram Sheftel, demanded last week that the court disregard the evidence of alleged offenses at Sobibor because it was not mentioned in the indictment.

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