Legal Purgatory and John Demjanjuk

The Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk has been living in a fashioned legal purgatory.   Stripped of American citizenship after his alleged role as a death camp guard emerged, the courts have been breathing down his neck.  Despite persistent legal interest, some countries have shunned the chance to try him, most notably those where the crimes were said to have taken place (Poland and Ukraine).  The US authorities would rather see the back of him, having paid lip service to the idea of guilt without actually charging him.

The law has have been something of a fixture in his life since the late 1970s.  He was extradited in 1986 to Israel, having lived in the United States since 1951.  In 1988, Demjanjuk was initially sentenced to death by two Israeli judges, who had accepted the testimony of five witnesses identifying him as the Treblinka guard named “Ivan the Terrible.”  Amongst the gruesome catalogue of offenses was the slicing the breasts off female inmates with his bayonet.  Nagging doubts emerged as to whether he was, indeed, the same guard, a situation which led to the verdict being overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993.

On his return to the US, the sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an earlier court’s decision revoking Demjanjuk’s citizenship and order for extradition, paving the way for his re-naturalization in 1998.  The wheels of justice again turned, with the Federal government again chasing revocation and extradition.  The ruling has been accepted by two courts, one at first instance, another on appeal.  Demjanjuk’s position has always been this: he was a prisoner of war after being captured by German forces in 1942, only to fight for his former captors against Soviet forces in 1945.

German prosecutors have shown a greater willingness to subject the accused to criminal proceedings.  The approach in the case has now changed: from Treblinka, the focus has now shifted to Sobibor, a death camp located in southeastern Poland.  Up to 200,000 perished there, among them 29,000 Jews.  Demjanjuk, it is claimed, was stationed there in 1943.

The latest drama in the saga finds Demjanjuk staying the deportation order to Germany in a US appeals court, which was set to take place last week.  Arguments are being made suggesting that sending him to Germany for trial in his condition is tantamount to torture.  Problems with identification and clarity will again come into play – such evidence often tends to be unreliable, even at the best of times.

Should this reach trial in Germany, it will be the culmination of a rather long road in the vocation of Nazi hunting.  Both accused and accusers are slowly leaving the scene of battle.  Simon Wiesenthal, tireless self-styled Nazi hunter, is no longer with us.  Budgets for organizations dedicated to the same cause have shrunk to shoestring levels.

While Demjanjuk must be brought to account for these serious offenses, the round robin trips through the legal system, and the limbo he finds himself in, do little for the overall cause of justice.  It gives unnecessary fodder to Holocaust deniers and those eager for martyrs.

Justice delayed is often denied, and the mechanism in his case, if it ever existed, has stuttered and spluttered for years now.  Arguments of age and frailty are usual considerations, and these will be forthcoming later this week. These are the stock-and-trade assessments made of the capacity of a person to stand trial.  But the most important feature of this episode  – the presumption of innocence – should still be applied, however serious the charges.  What matters now is a quick resolution to this unnecessarily drawn-out affair.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: