Judges reject Demjanjuk defense arguments, lawyers say they're leaning toward guilty verdict

BERLIN (AP) — Judges threw out motions to dismiss the case against accused Nazi guard John Demjanjuk on Thursday, rejecting several key defense arguments and saying they found the evidence against him to be strong.

The ruling prompted attorneys from both sides to say the court appears to be leaning toward a guilty verdict.

Demjanjuk, who turned 90 last month, is standing trial on 27,900 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he was a guard at the Nazi's Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland. He denies ever being at any camp, claiming he is the victim of mistaken identity.

In several motions, his attorney Ulrich Busch had asked the court to end the proceedings against Demjanjuk and release him, arguing that evidence presented since his trial began Nov. 30 has either not been credible or has failed to prove that he was a camp guard.

But in dismissing the motions Thursday, the judges said "there continues to be strong suspicion" against Demjanjuk and rejected many of the defense team's arguments.

"This confirms my opinion that the court has already reached a judgment," Busch told the AP after the hearing.

The prosecution argues that after Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, a Soviet Red Army soldier, was captured by the Germans in 1942, he volunteered to serve under the SS as a guard.

Demjanjuk claims he spent most of the rest of the war in Nazi camps for prisoners of war before joining the so-called Vlasov Army of anti-communist Soviet POWs and others. That army was formed to fight with the Germans against the encroaching Soviets in the final months of the war.

Though Demjanjuk denies ever serving as a camp guard, the prosecution has presented a Nazi-issued identity card as evidence that they say has Demjanjuk's picture on it and indicates he was a guard at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk's defense team maintains the card is a fake, but in a second line of argument also says all Soviet prisoners who agreed to serve the Nazis did so only to escape almost certain death themselves and could not be held responsible for Holocaust crimes. Once they realized they would be guarding death camps, it was already impossible for them to flee, the defense has argued.

But the judges in their ruling clearly rejected that argument, saying that from the evidence they had heard there were a "high number of successful desertions." They also rejected the argument that the auxiliary guards were not involved in the killing process, saying that it was irrelevant when considering the accessory charges.

In addition, though an expert witness cast doubt on one of the most damning statements against Demjanjuk, saying it should be treated with the "highest caution" because it came from a KGB interrogation, the judges said they were still considering it.

In the statement, Sobibor guard Ignat Danilchenko told the KGB in 1979 he remembered Demjanjuk from the camp and that "like all guards in the camp, participated in the mass killing of Jews."

The judges did say, however, that they were still waiting on more evidence from Western sources to properly evaluate the Danilchenko testimony.

Cornelius Nestler, one of the attorneys representing the families of Sobibor victims who have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs as allowed under German law, took the ruling as a very good sign.

"The court sees clearly that, at this stage of the evidence, there is a good possibility of a guilty verdict," he told the AP.

The ruling came as the trial was called off for the third day in a row after the court doctor said Demjanjuk needed to remain hospitalized after being brought to a clinic Tuesday with dangerously low blood hemoglobin levels and complaining of chest pains.

Though an EKG exam indicated that Demjanjuk had not suffered a heart attack, doctors at the clinic where he was being treated in intensive care said his hemoglobin level was at one point down to a reading of 8 — with normal levels being about 14 to 18 — and that he needed a transfusion.

Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio autoworker who was deported from the U.S. last year to Germany, suffers from several medical problems but has been declared fit to face trial as long as court sessions are limited to two 90-minute sessions per day. At least seven trial dates have been canceled, however, due to medical issues.

The court's doctor said Demjanjuk is expected to be released this week and he should be able to attend the next scheduled trial session June 8.

Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., suggested that the judge's ruling was in response to his father's deteriorating medical condition.

"The court sees that my father is dying and not fit for trial so they are putting forth a baseless rush to judgment as the show may come to an end without an actual verdict, a verdict which they would be required to justify based upon the record of the trial," he told the AP in an e-mail.


Associated Press Writer David Rising contributed to this report from Berlin.