JERUSALEM (Aug. 18)
Holocaust survivors and Jewish groups reacted with outrage to an Israeli court’s decision this week that appeared to bring acquitted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk one step closer to freedom.
Israel’s High Court of Justice on Wednesday rejected petitions from 10 different organizations and several individuals calling on the government to try Demjanjuk on war crimes charges other than the ones he was acquitted of last month.
But the court agreed to delay his deportation until Friday, so that it could review a request to have a larger five-judge panel of the court rule on whether Demjanjuk should be tried on new charges.
If that petition is turned down, the way apparently will be clear for Demjanjuk to leave the country. And it is clear that the 73-year-old former Cleveland autoworker’s destination of choice will be the United States, from which he was extradited in 1986.
The U.S. Justice Department and Jewish groups were battling this week to prevent Demjanjuk from returning to the United States. But in the wake of Wednesday’s court ruling in Israel and the continuing silence of a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, there was little hope that those efforts would succeed.
As one official put it, anything could happen, but the expectation is that Demjanjuk will be on a plane for America by Shabbat.
Demjanjuk’s 1988 conviction and death sentence for war crimes committed at the Treblinka death camp was overturned July 29 by the High Court, which found reasonable doubt that he was the notorious gas chamber operator known as “Ivan the Terrible.”
But the court also ruled there was compelling evidence that Demjanjuk had served as an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp and at the Flossenburg and Regensburg concentration camps.
It was on these grounds that the more than 20 petitioners, including Holocaust survivors and the World Jewish Congress, called for a retrial.
BRINGS ‘SHAME ON THE JEWISH PEOPLE’
But their arguments were seriously weakened when the state attorney general, Yosef Harish, recommended last week against a retrial.
Harish said that prosecuting Demjanjuk again would involve the issue of double jeopardy, or trying someone twice for the same crime. Evidence regarding his alleged crimes at Sobibor had been part of the original case.
Harish also said trying Demjanjuk anew would risk violating the terms under which he had been extradited from the United States.
Also cited by Harish was the enormous time, effort and expense that a new trial would demand from the state, with no certainty that a conviction could be obtained.
Wednesday’s ruling led to an outburst of emotion in the courtroom.
“The High Court is corrupt; they bring shame on the Jewish people,” said one woman.
“Demjanjuk was able to be acquitted because of a legal loophole,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Israel and one of the petitioners. “We will also use the legal system in whatever way possible to see that he is going to be held accountable.”
“We’ll leave no stone unturned in our efforts to see that he doesn’t leave here a free man,” he added.
A leader of the extremist Kach movement predicted that Jews would take the law into their own hands if Demjanjuk was freed.
“We will make justice,” Baruch Marzel told Israel Radio on Wednesday. “Demjanjuk one day will be killed by good Jews and not by corrupt Jews like we have in the High Court.”
“He’ll be dead in a short period — if not in Israel, somewhere else. But he will be dead,” Marzel said.
On Friday the petitioners will be granted a second hearing, but it is not expected to result in a different ruling. One legal expert called the rehearing an “appropriate” formality.
“I don’t think it will change the final result,” said Kenneth Mann, a law professor at Tel Aviv University.
“But the court is intent upon allowing the parties to exhaust all procedures for reviewing the case before (Demjanjuk’s) release and deportation,” he continued. “It is appropriate.”
SILENCE FROM CINCINNATI COURT
If the rehearing results in no new decision, Demjanjuk presumably will seek to return to the United States immediately.
Demjanjuk’s son-in-law, Edward Nishnic, said this week that if Demjanjuk is freed, he will try to return to the United States, rather than to his native Ukraine, which has granted him asylum.
U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), a key Demjanjuk supporter, flew to Israel this week to escort Demjanjuk home. According to reports here, the family had purchased airline tickets for Wednesday, assuming the Israeli court would allow him to leave immediately following its decision.
Jewish groups have been seeking to bar Demjanjuk from returning to the United States. But on Aug. 3, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the government could not bar him from reentering the country.
The U.S. Justice Department has appealed that decision to the full circuit court and asked it for a stay of the three-judge panel’s ruling pending the outcome of the appeal. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the Cincinnati court had not responded to the various petitions.
The Justice Department said this week that unless a stay is granted or the Aug. 3 ruling is overturned, it will comply with the order and allow Demjanjuk into the country.
Demjanjuk would most likely be admitted under the attorney general’s parole authority, which enables her to admit people who otherwise would be considered illegal aliens.
Jewish groups are already contemplating what they will do if Demjanjuk is allowed back into the country, with several saying they will fight to have him removed.
(Contributing to this report was JTA staff writer Mitchell Danow in New York.)