The agonising pace of the last Nazi trial

The final chance to get justice for 27,900 Jews murdered at Sobibor has descended into farce
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The Independent Online

He used to cover his face with a grey baseball cap to try to escape the glare of publicity, but that was over a year ago. These days the judges have relented: the man alleged to be the last Nazi mass murderer to face justice is allowed to wear sunglasses in court all the time – even if the world's media now virtually ignores him.

Ninety-year-old John Demjanjuk is suspected of having been a brutal prison guard at the infamous Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. He stands accused of complicity in the slaughter of 27,900 Jews, most of whom were Dutch. Yet, lying prone on a hospital bed wrapped up in a green prison coverlet, Mr Demjanjuk often falls asleep as evidence against him is read out in court.

The Demjanjuk trial has been billed as Germany's, and quite possibly the world's, final attempt to bring one of the remaining suspected Nazi war criminals to justice. For elderly Holocaust survivors such as Jules Schelvis, whose entire family was murdered in Sobibor, a verdict is far more important than retribution: "Justice must be done and be seen to be done, the sentence is almost irrelevant," he declared as the trial opened. He is one of the very few to have survived Sobibor.

The Munich court case against Mr Demjanjuk began in November 2009 and was meant to end in early 2010 at the latest. No one is making predictions now. "We are not quite sure when it will end," said Michael Koch, one of the lawyers representing the families of Sobibor victims. "If things don't go in our favour, we could still be here in October."

The scores of reporters from across the globe who attended the trial opening have gone. So have nearly all the relatives of those who were murdered in Sobibor. As a result, the case has been shifted to Munich Court B266, a smaller and dingier 1970s-built courtroom. Among the few journalists who now cover the proceedings is a reporter who works for a neo-Nazi website.

Were it not for the gravity of the crimes that Ukranian-born defendant is alleged to have committed, his appearances in court, would qualify as material for a television farce. The trial often degenerates into stand-up shouting matches between Ralph Alt, the presiding judge, and Ulrich Busch, Mr Demjanjuk's defence lawyer – not least because the proceedings are agonisingly slow. Every shred of evidence read out in court has to be simultaneously translated into Ukranian by a court translator to enable Mr Demjanjuk to comprehend what is going on. Yet the accused says nothing and only ever opens his mouth to emit moans or strange gurgling sounds.

The proceedings have been slowed to a snail's pace by the aged and apparently ailing defendant's state of health. Doctors have ruled that bone marrow disease and the fact that he suffers from anaemia, attacks of gout, and chronic hip pain mean that he is only fit to appear in court for two days a week for a maximum of three hours a day. They are by no means certain that he will live long enough to witness the end of his own trial. Proceedings often grind to a halt as soon as they start with doctors proclaiming that their patient is "not well enough to attend court today". Mr Demjanjuk is then driven back to his cell in Stadelheim prison, Munich, where he has been incarcerated since his extradition from the US in May 2009.

But Mr Demjanjuk's health is far from being the only barrier in the way of justice being done and being seen to be done. The prosecution case is severely hampered by the fact that there is not a single witness still alive who remembers having seen Mr Demjanjuk in Sobibor.

One of the few witnesses who had been expected to help solve this problem was a former Nazi death camp guard called Samuel Kunz who had been due to give evidence last month. But Kunz, who also faced the prospect of being tried himself for the alleged murder of thousands of Jews, died quietly at his home near Bonn in the middle of November aged 89.

The main piece of evidence against Mr Demjanjuk is what is alleged to be his SS identity card, No 1393, which has been released to the court from former Soviet archives. The other is a statement by a former and now deceased camp guard called Ignat Danilchenko, who testified under Soviet interrogation that he had seen Mr Demjanjuk driving Jews into the gas chambers of Sobibor. However, Mr Demjanjuk's defence lawyer argues that the ID card is a fake document manufactured by the KGB in order to deliberately incriminate Mr Demjanjuk. He has also found other statements by Danilchenko which contradict his claims about having seen Mr Demjanjuk in Sobibor. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned a previous conviction of Demjanjuk saying it had reasonable doubts about his identification as another Nazi prison guard nicknamed Ivan the Terrible.

The court must also decide whether to accept an argument put forward by the prosecution, which has no legal precedent in post-war death camp trials. This proposition, backed by historians' research, maintains that simply by being employed as an SS guard in Sobibor, Mr Demjanjuk would automatically have taken part in the mass murder of prisoners. The defence argues that such claims are ridiculous, and that the prosecution must prove not only that he was there but that he also murdered.

Mr Demjanjuk may never have addressed the court in person, but on the first anniversary of the opening of his court case in Germany last November, his lawyer read out a statement from him. In it, Mr Demjanjuk claimed to be a "simple prisoner of war" who was being unjustly prosecuted by a German judiciary which in the past had not only acquitted war criminals but also not even bothered to prosecute them.

History bears out his latter claim. Germany's post-war legal system was often massively short on justice. Back in 1966, 11 former Nazi SS men were tried by a West German court for the genocide at Sobibor. Only Karl Frenzel, the camp commandant, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes. The court heard accounts of how Frenzel whipped a dying prisoner and then pulled out a pistol and shot him dead. Five other defendants were given jail terms of between three and eight years. The other five were acquitted. At scores of similar trials during the same era, defendants had charges against them dropped simply because they could argue that they were only obeying orders and that not to have done so would have meant their own certain deaths.

The Demjanjuk trial, as today's fortysomething state prosecutors and lawyers put it, is an attempt by a "new generation within the German judicial system" to make amends for the gross shortcomings of the past. German historian Norbert Frei sums it up as follows: "The Germans owe it not only to the victims and the survivors to put Mr Demjanjuk on trial, they also owe it to themselves."

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