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Israel Rejects Demjajuk Ruling; Jewish Groups Urging U.S. to Appeal

Jewish organizational leaders and members of Congress are urging the Justice Department to appeal a federal court decision ordering the government to allow John Demjanjuk’s return to the United States.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled Tuesday in Cincinnati that Demjanjuk must be allowed to return in the wake of a decision last week by Israel’s Supreme Court overturning his 1988 conviction and death sentence for war crimes committed at the Treblinka death camp in Poland.

The appeals court called Demjanjuk “stateless and homeless,” and ruled that “basic humanitarian considerations embodied in the U.S. Constitution require that steps be taken” to ensure that justice is carried out.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli Justice Ministry said that the Cincinnati court’s ruling that Demjanjuk should be returned to the United States is not legally binding on the State of Israel.

The ministry said the attorney general would announce on Aug. 11 whether Israel intends to retry Demjanjuk or deport him immediately.

In a separate development, Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a request from Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, to move up the hearing on whether to retry Demjanjuk.

Sheftel predicted Wednesday that Israel would not try his client on further charges and that Demjanjuk would return to the United States next week.

Originally, Israel had planned to deport the former Cleveland autoworker to his native Ukraine, which had indicated it would allow him to enter the country. But that was before the Cincinnati court cleared the way for his return to the United States.

U.S. NOT SURE IT WILL APPEAL

On Tuesday, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yuri Scherbak, warned that Demjanjuk could be tried for Nazi war crimes if he returned to his native country.

“If Demjanjuk will arrive in Ukraine and if there will be a solid basis for it, the authoritative institutions in Ukraine will open the criminal file against him and carry out the required investigations,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the circuit court ruling, Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) joined a host of Jewish groups in calling on the Justice Department to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department was still uncertain Wednesday as to whether it would appeal. A spokeswoman said the department needed to review the written order from the circuit court and evaluate it before making a decision.

The department could appeal either to the Supreme Court, or to an “en bane” panel of 14 judges of the appeals court. Tuesday’s decision was made by a smaller three-judge panel.

Last week, following the Israeli Supreme Court ruling, the Justice Department had said it would bar Demjanjuk from returning to the United States, which extradited him in 1986.

Schumer planned to hand a letter to Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann on Wednesday afternoon urging the Justice Department to seek a Supreme Court stay of the appeals court decision.

The letter, from Schumer and Lowey to Attorney General Janet Reno, called the appeals court decision “legally and morally insupportable.”

Schumer and Lowey argued in their letter that while the Israeli Supreme Court had overturned Demjanjuk’s conviction for war crimes at Treblinka, it had nonetheless found there was convincing evidence that he had served as a Nazi guard at the Trawniki training camp and the Sobibor death camp.

“This firm evidence of Demjanjuk’s participation in the extermination of Jews clearly and firmly supports the grounds for Demjanjuk’s denaturalization,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a separate letter to Reno, Lowey wrote that the appeals court ruling “ignores the basis for revoking Demjanjuk’s citizenship and is an affront to the countless millions who were killed during the Holocaust.”

“The United States must never be a haven for former Nazis.” Lowey wrote.

SURVIVOR ATTEMPTS SUICIDE

The head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Ephraim Zuroff, was among those expressing outrage over the Cincinnati appeals court decision there Wednesday.

“The reasons that led the American government to strip Demjanjuk of his American citizenship and ultimately extradite him are as valid today and in 1986 when he was denaturalized and in 1986 when he was extradited,” Zuroff told Israel Radio.

“If anything, the findings of the (Israeli) Supreme Court confirmed the decision of the American government to take away his American citizenship,” he said.

“The fact that the court in Cincinnati ignored those findings is, quite frankly, a tremendous slap in the face to the State of Israel.”

The progression of events in the Demjanjuk case has been deeply troubling to Holocaust survivors. Anguish over his acquittal last week even led one survivor in the Israeli town of Nahariya to attempt suicide.

Ya’akov Weinberger, 66, was reported to have swallowed more than 40 Valium pills on Monday and was taken to the hospital after being found unconscious on the street.

He reportedly left a letter to his family apologizing for the action, which he said was a result of the pain he felt after Demjanjuk’s conviction and death sentence were overturned.

“The truth is, I just cannot face the acquittal,” he wrote, according to Israeli news agencies. “I lost six family members in the Holocaust, my parents and four others, and the pain is too much to bear.”

Weinberger said his action was prompted by the feeling he was “cut off from everything around him and said he could only think of the terrible injustice done to Holocaust survivors.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Cynthia Mann in Jerusalem.)

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