MUNICH – The legal saga of John Demjanjuk neared its final chapter Monday as prosecutors set the stage for one of Germany's highest-profile war crime trials in years — formally charging the retired U.S. auto worker with involvement in the murder of 27,900 people at a Nazi death camp.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was once sentenced in Israel to death, then acquitted by the country's Supreme Court in 1993 of being the notorious "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka death camp. Now the 89-year-old stands accused of being part of the death machine at another camp in Poland — Sobibor — and a Germany more than 60 years removed from World War II will revisit the demons of its past once again.
For Germany, the decision to try Demjanjuk was swift: formal charges relating to his alleged time as a Sobibor guard in 1943 were filed just two months after Demjanjuk landed in the country after a lengthy but fruitless court battle to avoid deportation from the U.S.
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Filing charges typically takes several months in Germany. Monday's move underlined authorities' determination not to draw a line under attempts to exact justice for Nazi-era atrocities.
"The effort to bring Demjanjuk to justice sends a very powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrator," said the top Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, who described the charges as "an important step forward."
The Munich state court must now decide whether to accept the charges — typically a formality — and set a date for the trial. Court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said the trial was unlikely to start before the autumn.
Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., described the charges as "a farce" and raised anew concerns over whether the 89-year-old's frail health would allow him a fair trial. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
"As long as my father remains alive, we will defend his innocence as he has never hurt anyone anywhere," he told The Associated Press in an e-mail. "They have hurried to justify the deportation and the violation of his legal and human rights with sensational charges but it is all a farce and could never withstand the test of litigation."
Demjanjuk Jr. said his father is suffering from an incurable leukemic bone marrow disease.
However, doctors earlier this month determined that Demjanjuk (dem-YAHN'-yuk) was fit to stand trial so long as court hearings do not exceed two 90-minute sessions per day. He has been in custody in Munich since his arrival May 12.
Elderly, frail Nazi suspects with health problems have stood trial in the past: in 2001, Anton Malloth, an 89-year-old former guard at the Theresienstadt fortress in then-occupied Czechoslovakia, sat through his trial in Munich in a wheelchair, connected to an IV drip. He was sentenced to life in prison for beating a Jewish inmate to death, and died a year later.
Legal wrangling over Demjanjuk and his alleged role in the Nazi death machine goes back to the 1970s.
Demjanjuk, who became a U.S. citizen after the war, had his citizenship revoked in 1981 after the U.S. Justice Department alleged that he hid his past as "Ivan the Terrible," a guard at Treblinka.
He was extradited to Israel, where he was found guilty in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the conviction was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court after evidence emerged from Soviet archives that "Ivan" was a different Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko.
Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship was restored but again revoked in 2002, based on fresh Justice Department evidence showing he concealed his service at Sobibor and other Nazi-run death and forced-labor camps from immigration officials.
A U.S. immigration judge ruled in 2005 he could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine. The case moved a decisive step forward when Munich prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him in March.
Demjanjuk maintains that he was a Red Army soldier who spent the time as a prisoner of war and never hurt anyone.
But Nazi-era documents obtained by U.S. justice authorities and shared with German prosecutors include a photo ID identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor and saying he was trained at an SS facility for Nazi guards at Trawniki, also in Nazi-occupied Poland. U.S. and German experts have declared the ID genuine.
In their March arrest warrant, prosecutors accused Demjanjuk of being an accessory to murder in 29,000 cases, representing the number of people who arrived there while he was alleged to be a camp guard. Some 250,000 people died in the camp's gas chamber from when it opened in 1942 until it was razed to the ground 18 months later.
However, that number was reduced in the charges because, of the people transported to Sobibor, "many did not survive the journey," said Anton Winkler, a spokesman for Munich prosecutors.
Winkler's office is handling the case because Demjanjuk spent time at a refugee camp in the Munich area after the war.
Alongside Demjanjuk's upcoming trial, other cases of alleged Nazi war crimes are working their way through the German legal system.
In Munich, 90-year-old German former army officer Josef Scheungraber is being tried on charges that he ordered the killings of 14 Italian civilians in 1944.
And last week, judges in western Germany ruled that 88-year-old Heinrich Boere, accused of murdering three Dutch civilians during World War II, will go to court after prolonged wrangling over whether he is fit for trial.
"This isn't about revenge. It's not about tormenting an old man — it's about justice, it's about determining guilt," said Dieter Graumann, vice president of Germany's Central Council of Jews.
More important than whether Demjanjuk ultimately is sentenced to prison time is "that the guilt is determined, that it's discussed," Graumann said.
"Now, at a time when there are so many Holocaust deniers ... it's all the more important that in such a trial it's made clear once again what happened, what took place," he said.