Nazi guard Demjanjuk convicted -- and then released
John Demjanjuk, the Nazi death camp guard, was found guilty yesterday of 28,000 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison, only to be immediately released because of his age.
The Munich court freed Demjanjuk (91), pending his appeal against conviction and sentence for crimes he committed as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Judge Ralph Alt cited Demjanjuk's age and that he posed no danger to the public as justification for his release.
But Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressed his disappointment over the decision, which followed an 18-month trial.
"Until I heard the news of his release I was satisfied as the verdict sent a very powerful message that Nazi war criminals will eventually face justice, but now I have my reservations," he said.
"He was released on the basis of age, but we think that is irrelevant. The people he sent to death in Sobibor didn't have that privilege and he should be behind bars."
Sitting in a wheelchair, Demjanjuk had remained impassive as the court delivered its verdict. He waived the right to make a final statement.
Judge Alt said it was clear that Demjanjuk had played a role in the extermination of thousands at Sobibor, adding that he was a piece in the Nazi "machinery of destruction".
"The court is convinced that the defendant... served as a guard at Sobibor from March 27, 1943, to mid-September 1943. As guard he took part in the murder of at least 28,000 people," the judge said at the end of the 18-month trial.
Born in Ukraine, Demjanjuk always protested his innocence, claiming that he had been a prisoner of war after being captured by the advancing German army in 1942.
He later moved to the United States, working in an Ohio car factory.
Although there was no evidence that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime, the prosecution was based on the theory that, if he was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing.
It produced an SS identity card carrying a picture of a young Demjanjuk as a key piece of evidence.
The conviction and release is the latest chapter in a 30-year legal drama.
Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death two decades ago in Israel for being the notorious "Ivan the Terrible" camp guard at Treblinka death camp in Poland.
The guilty verdict was overturned on appeal by Israel's supreme court in 1993 after new evidence emerged pointing to a case of mistaken identity.
Stephan J Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said that the verdict was "not revenge but the execution of justice, even 65 years later".
Victims' groups said the main point for them was the guilty verdict and they refrained from criticising the decision to set Demjanjuk free.
"For us the important thing is that he got convicted," World Jewish Congress spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said. "It's not up to an organisation like us to say whether he should be in jail or not." (© Daily Telegraph, London)