MUNICH, Germany (JTA) — An attorney for accused Nazi camp guard John Demjanjuk said it was unfair for his client to be charged for following orders when his superiors were never charged.
Demjanjuk’s trial as an accessory to the murder of 29,700 Jews at the Sobibor death camp in Poland in 1943 began Monday in Munich.
Demjanjuk, 89, a former autoworker who lived in suburban Cleveland, appeared before the court in a wheelchair, covered by a blanket. Due to his poor health, the hearings will be restricted to two 90-minute sessions per day.
The case has been billed as one of the last major Nazi war-crimes trials.
Demjanjuk barely uttered a sound during the proceedings. He appeared to have his eyes closed even as his lead attorney, Ulrich Busch, said that the judges and prosecutors should be removed from the case for being prejudiced against his client. The request was denied.
Busch said the court had acted unjustly by refusing in the past to bring to trial those who had given orders to murder and preferring instead to try his client on suspicion of following orders.
Without suggesting that Demjanjuk was a murderous "Trawniki" guard at Sobibor, as the prosecution charges, Busch said that the so-called Trawnikis — many of them Soviet POWs who were trained by the SS — were just as much victims as Jews forced to work for the Nazis in concentration camps.
If convicted, Demjanjuk could face a prison sentence of up to 15 years.The trial is expected to end in May. Demjanjuk has denied the charges and said he was a Soviet prisoner of war in a German camp.
In 2002, the U.S. Justice Department charged Demjanjuk with being a guard at Sobibor and revoked his citizenship for lying about his Nazi past in order to gain citizenship. He was extradited to Germany in May.
In the early 1980s, Demjanjuk was accused of being the notorious guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka death camp. He was deported to Israel in 1986 and sentenced to death in 1988, but the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1993 after finding reasonable doubt that he was the guard in question.
New evidence allowed the current charges to be brought.
Monday’s proceedings began an hour after the scheduled start time in order to accommodate the 200 accredited journalists.