Demjanjuk and justice (JERUSALEM POST EDITORIAL) 03/19/12)
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In 1986, John “Ivan” Demjanjuk was deported from the US to Israel to
stand trial for committing murder and acts of extraordinary violence
against humanity during the years 1942 and 1943. Dozens of Israeli
Holocaust survivors identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible,” a
notorious prison guard at the Treblinka extermination camp.
Between November 1986 and April 1988 a special tribunal made up of
Supreme Court justice Dov Levin and Jerusalem District Court judges
Zvi Tal and Dalia Dorner heard the case, which was open to TV crews
and took place in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center.
Clearly, an effort was made to publicize the proceedings, which, like
the 1962 Adolf Eichmann trial, was used as a means of confronting the
horrors – and the moral lessons – of the Holocaust.
Like Eichmann, Demjanjuk was found guilty under the Nazis and Nazi
Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950 and sentenced to death by
hanging – the second case of capital punishment in Israel’s history.
But Demjanjuk appealed and in 1993 the Supreme Court, sitting as an
expanded five-man panel of judges, overturned the lower court’s
decision. Justices Aharon Barak, Menachem Elon, Meir Shamgar, Eliezer
Goldberg and Avraham Halima – basing themselves in part on new
evidence that became available after the disintegration of the Soviet
Union – ruled that a reasonable doubt remained as to whether or not
Demjanjuk was in fact Ivan the Terrible.
Holocaust survivors and others brought at least 10 petitions
demanding that Demjanjuk be tried for lesser war crimes while serving
as a guard in other concentration camps including Sobibor and
But the attorney-general and the Supreme Court decided to let
Demjanjuk go based on legal technicalities.
Holding another trial would, they argued, violate the principle of
double jeopardy that prevents someone from being tried again after
being acquitted for similar offenses.
Also, since it was unclear whether Demjanjuk would be convicted based
on the evidence available, and another acquittal would deal a major
blow to the public sentiment, it was preferable to avoid another
While the Jewish state passed on the opportunity to convict
Demjanjuk, it was Germany of all places that decided to pursue the
matter, eventually convicting the Ukrainian in May 2011 for helping
to murder 28,000 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp.
However, Demjanjuk received a meager five-year sentence that Yoram
Sheftel, Demjanjuk’s defense attorney during his trial in Israel,
noted at the time was equivalent to the punishment one received for
Demjanjuk died outside prison walls in a German retirement home while
waiting for his appeal to be heard. Understandably, many –
particularly Holocaust survivors – were disappointed by Demjanjuk’s
ability to avoid justice.
Indeed, the Demjanjuk case underlines the limits of justice. As the
Supreme Court justices noted in their 1993 decision: “Judges, who are
only human, cannot reach perfection, and it is only right that they
judge on the basis of what is placed before them, and on that basis
But even within the framework of justice all is not lost. The German
court’s conviction of Demjanjuk sets an important precedent, notes
Efraim Zuroff, a veteran Nazi-hunter who heads the Simon Wiesenthal
Center in Israel. In the past it was necessary to prove
responsibility for a specific death to convict a Nazi war criminal.
According to Germany’s Demjanjuk decision, even serving as an
accessory to murder is a punishable crime.
Zuroff, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post from Prague, estimates that
about 4,000 Nazis and their helpers served in one of the four “death
factories” – Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec – or in the
Einsatzgruppen death squads. Around 2 percent, or 80, remain alive,
about half of whom still fit enough physically to stand trial. The
Simon Wiesenthal Center is offering a 25,000 euro award for
information leading to their capture. The hunt goes on, while
adhering to the limitations of justice. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem
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