John Demjanjuk’s attorney appealed to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday for the immediate release of the former Treblinka death camp guard, on the grounds that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was convicted in 1988 of crimes against humanity and crimes against Jews. He was sentenced to death after a protracted trial in special session of the Jerusalem District Court.
His Israeli defense lawyer, Yoram Sheftel, claimed in his appeal that the undisclosed testimony proves his client’s “absolute innocence.” He said he uncovered it on a recent trip to the Soviet Union.
According to the verdict, Demjanjuk, a longtime resident of Cleveland, was the brutal Treblinka guard known by inmates as “Ivan the Terrible,” who herded Jews into gas chambers which he helped operate during 1942 and 1943.
The High Court, which is still considering his appeal of the death sentence, was urged by Sheftel to acquit Demjanjuk, release him immediately and extend an apology.
The lawyer said that in the Soviet Union he found statements, taken between the mid-1940s and 1961 from about 40 Ukrainians who were guards at Treblinka, that uphold Demjanjuk’s claim of mistaken identity.
According to Sheftel, the Israeli prosecution knew of this evidence but failed to present it to the court or divulge its existence to the defense.
Sheftel claims the testimony identifies another Treblinka guard, Ivan Marchenko, as “Ivan the Terrible.”
He made the same claim during the trial. The prosecution countered by claiming Marchenko was the maiden name of the defendant’s mother, which he sometimes used as his own.
The 65-year-old Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States in 1952 and obtained U.S. citizenship in 1958.
In 1981 he was accused of having lied about his wartime activities to gain entry to the United States, and a U.S. District Court ordered him stripped of citizenship.
Demjanjuk was arrested by federal marshals in November 1983. In April 1985, a federal judge granted Israel’s request for extradition, and he was deported to Israel on Feb 27, 1986.
He was indicted in Jerusalem in September of that year and his trial opened on Nov. 26, 1986.
Sheftel, who took over Demjanjuk’s defense after the family dismissed his American lawyer, was partially blinded when a distraught Holocaust survivor hurled acid into his face for defending the suspected war criminal.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.