BERLIN (JTA) — A Munich court has found John Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes and sentenced the 91-year-old former autoworker to five years in prison..
Thursday’s verdict came after 93 court days, including deeply affecting testimony from Dutch survivors and their kin, and monologues by Demjanjuk’s chief attorney, Ulrich Busch, who claimed his Ukrainian-born client was just as much a victim of Germany as any Jew.
His attorneys say they will appeal the verdict. Demjanjuk will be free pending the appeal because he was judged not to be a flight risk. An appeal could take a year.
Reacting to the early news of the guilty verdict, Jewish organizations and leaders expressed gratitude to the court.
“The Munich State Court’s clear message to the world is no matter how long it takes, mass murderers are accountable to justice,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office. “Today’s verdict is one of the most important legal precedents in decades for the prosecution and conviction of Nazi-era war criminals, and should encourage the pursuit of others who participated in executing the Holocaust.”
Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, hailed the initial news of the guilty verdict as “a very important step in the direction of justice after more than 65 years of injustice."
However, he decried the judge’s decision to release Demjanjuk pending appeal.
"The immediate release of Demjanjuk from the prison is a slap in the face to any survivor and the relatives of the victims. He should have served the term at least in a prison,” Kramer wrote in a statement to JTA. “That’s not justice, it is cynicism at the expense of the victims. Absolutely unacceptable.”
Demjanjuk, born in Ukraine, was charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in Sobibor. He was present at nearly every court date, always in a wheelchair or hospital bed, and wearing sunglasses. He said virtually nothing for the duration of the trial.
In April 2010, Busch read aloud a statement in which Demjanjuk called the trial "torture" that was relieved only by his care attendants.
Survivor Thomas Blatt, one of the rare escapees from Sobibor, told JTA during the trial that “All the guards [at Sobibor] were murderers" and that "it is enough to prove he was there.”
Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after World War II and lived in suburban Cleveland starting in 1952. His later years were spent fighting accusations of involvement in wartime crimes against humanity: He was accused in the early 1980s of being the notorious guard "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka death camp, but was released from jail in Israel after seven years when another Ukrainian was identified as the guard in question.
The U.S. Justice Department later reported that Demjanjuk was suspected of having been a guard at Sobibor and was liable for deportation because his U.S. citizenship had been granted based on false information. His citizenship was revoked in 2002, and deportation was approved in 2005. He was deported in March 2009.
Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA he was pleased with the verdict against Demjanjuk but disappointed that a German court in Ingolstadt decided Wednesday not to extradite another accused war criminal to Holland.
A spokesperson for that court said that 88-year-old Klaas Carel Faber, convicted more than 60 years ago by a Dutch court of complicity in 22 wartime murders, would not be extradited because Faber’s consent as a German citizen was required and he refused, according to The Associated Press.
"This decision is absolutely outrageous," Zuroff said in an interview from Jerusalem. "It makes my blood boil."
Kramer noted that of 150,000 war crimes investigations in postwar West Germany, only 6,500 resulted in trials.