'Ivan' judges swallow hard but acquit: The Demjanjuk case turns its final corner

JERUSALEM - In a historic appeal court ruling, Israeli judges yesterday freed John Demjanjuk, a car worker from Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States, who five years ago was sentenced to hang as Ivan the Terrible, one of the most loathed of Nazi war criminals, writes Sarah Helm.

As assessment began of the judgment's devastating implications both for Israeli justice and for future war crimes trials throughout the world, Mr Demjanjuk, stripped of US citizenship and presented yesterday with a deportation order by Israel, was last night preparing to walk out into a world without a passport and still facing accusations of war crimes.

For although the court upheld the appeal, in the light of new evidence that another man, Ivan Marchenko, was Ivan the Terrible, the judges carefully avoided declaring him 'innocent' emphasising that their decision was taken on the basis of reasonable doubt.

The judges made it clear that, whatever questions now exist about his identity, Mr Demjanjuk had been a Nazi collaborator and assisted as a death camp guard. The court ruled, however, that he could not be convicted on these lesser charges without a new trial.

The drama reached its conclusion at 9am yesterday when the dignified white-haired figure of Meir Shamgar, President of the Israel Supreme Court, began to speak. In the dock Mr Demjanjuk, bulky and simple-faced, adjusted the volume on his earphones, and tilted his head. The court fell silent.

There can have been few more onerous judgements for a court to deliver than the decision in the case of the State of Israel v John Demjanjuk, in which five judges concluded that they must set free a man who, in their view, was guilty of Nazi atrocities, though not of the terrible crimes committed by Ivan the Terrible, a gas chamber operative at Treblinka.

They reached this decision because there was 'reasonable doubt' in the case, and Mr Shamgar hinted at the judges' internal dilemmas in coming to their unanimous decision. He said: 'It is difficult to sit in judgement in a trial pertaining to the Holocaust . . . (Judges) 'are not devoid of feelings . . . Memory horrifies us. But it is incumbent upon us to contain those feelings.'

As Mr Demjanjuk left the court, first to return to jail, 'for his own protection', before being set free, the implications of the case were beginning to reverberate.

Mr Demjanjuk's only words were: 'I want to see my wife, my children my grandchildren. I want to go home.' Mr Demjanjuk may be able to challenge the removal of his US citizenship, in the light of the ruling, but he is now expected to travel to the Ukraine, where he was born. It is the only country so far indicating that it will take him. A senior member of parliament in Ukraine, Bohdan Horyn, said he saw no reason why Mr Demjanjuk should not be allowed to return to Ukraine.

'I think that a man released by Israel's Supreme Court has every grounds to go to any state, including Ukraine,' Mr Horyn, deputy head of parliament's foreign affairs commission, said.

But the United States will bar the return of Mr Demjanjuk, the Justice Department said. Neal Sher, head of the department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, said that despite the acquittal the US has found Mr Demjanjuk ineligible to enter on the grounds that he served as a guard at Nazi death camps.

'There would have to be an executive order (by President Clinton) to get him back in,' Mr Sher said. 'Demjanjuk got off on a technicality.'

The Demjanjuk case was only the second Nazi war crimes trial to be held in Israel, the first being the trial, and subsequent execution in 1961, of Adolf Eichmann, author of the Final Solution. Immediately after the war bringing Nazis to justice was not a priority for the new state, largely because, for many years, there was no desire to go back into the horrors of the recent past.

'In the Fifties the Holocaust was still like a dark family secret for many people. They refused to talk about it,' says Tom Segev, author of the Seventh Million, a new book on the Holocaust.

The Eichmann prosecution changed all of that. The trial was deliberately used by the Israeli government as a means of bringing the Holocaust out into the open for Israelis and of educating them about the history. It was from that period that the Holocaust was promoted as a positive and central aspect of Israeli identity.

Although there was never a hunger for lesser war crimes trials, the prosecution of a suspect Ivan the Terrible, particularly when the case seemed so watertight, was hard to turn down. The case, once again, was used as holocaust education, beginning with lengthy expositions of the history. It was taken as a given by most people that the suspect was guilty from the start, and the trial became, also, a 'show trial'. As one observer put it: 'Everyone broke all the rules.'

Yesterday's acquittal has made sure of one thing: that if Israel does hold a war crimes trial again, it will never approach it in the same way. But few analysts here believe there is any real desire for further cases to be brought, and certainly no need, in the 1990s, for such trials in Israel as a means of 'Holocaust education'.

In his judgment Mr Shamgar appeared anxious to forstall any critics of the court, who may accuse the judges of undermining this 'Holocaust consciousness' by acquitting Mr Demjanjuk. He devoted lengthy sections of the judgment to reciting the horrors of the death camps. And he stressed the court was not questioning what happened at Treblinka by acquitting Demjanjuk. He also upheld the credibility of the original witnesses.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
News
news

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree is to be made into a series of films
film

Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree really is being made into a film

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
books

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Deputy Head of Science

£36000 - £60000 per annum: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client are a we...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £32000 per annum + TLR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client is...

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London