Court may free Demjanjuk

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SPECULATION is growing in legal circles in Israel that the man once sentenced to death for being 'Ivan the Terrible', one of the most loathed of all Nazi war criminals, might walk free before the end of the month.

A Supreme Court judgment on John (formerly Ivan) Demjanjuk's appeal is expected within three weeks. New evidence during the appeal hearing nine months ago was given additional weight by a court judgment in the US last week relating to Demjanjuk's extradition. The US judge said there was 'substantial doubt' that Demjanjuk was the right man, increasing pressure on the Israeli judges to acquit.

The implications of such a reversal are so great for the credibility of the prosecutors, for the Israeli legal system and for the hunt for Nazi war criminals that no firm predictions are being made about the outcome. An Israeli spokesman said the government was 'preparing for all eventualities'.

Demjanjuk, a former car-worker, was extradited seven years ago to stand trial in Israel on charges that he was 'Ivan the Terrible', the gas-chamber operator at the Treblinka death camp in Poland during the Second World War. The judges convicted Demjanjuk in 1988 of Ivan the Terrible's crimes. But in 1991 new KGB evidence suggested that 'Ivan the Terrible' was a man called Ivan Marchenko, a Ukrainian (like Demjanjuk) who was last seen in the former Yugoslavia in 1944. Evidence emerged, however, that Demjanjuk worked as an SS guard.

Legal experts in Jerusalem believe it is now almost impossible for the Supreme Court to uphold the conviction. On the other hand, it would be a monumental embarrassment to allow Demjanjuk to walk free. He cannot go back to the US, whence he was deported. Other options would be to acquit him on the main charge and charge him with the lesser offence of being an SS guard. The court could convict Demjanjuk of the lesser charge there and then, but experts say this is unlikely, as insufficient evidence has been produced.

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said the controversy had done enormous damage to the cause of bringing ex-Nazis to account by deterring other countries from acting.