updated 4/30/2004 2:57:39 PM ET 2004-04-30T18:57:39

A federal appeals court Friday upheld a judge’s decision to strip retired autoworker John Demjanjuk of U.S. citizenship, saying the government had proved that he served as a guard in Nazi concentration camps.

Demjanjuk, 84, who was born in Ukraine, insists that he was a prisoner during the war, not a guard. The government has spent 27 years trying to prove that he was a guard and then tried to hide his history.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision by a Cleveland federal judge who revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship in 2002.

“We find that the plaintiff, the United States of America, sustained its burden of proving through clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence that defendant, in fact, served as a guard at several Nazi training and concentration camps during World War II,” appeals Judge Eric Clay wrote. “We concur with the district court that he was not legally eligible to obtain citizenship under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.”

His family vowed to challenge the ruling.

Complications for appeal
Demjanjuk’s age and deteriorating health would make it difficult for him to withstand a process to deport him, said Ed Nishnic, his son-in-law and family spokesman.

“He’s slipping. He’s not well,” Nishnic said. “There are avenues that can be taken to prevent that. That would be the last thing we would like.”

The options include asking the full appeals court to reconsider its ruling or asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, Nishnic said.

“We will carefully review the court’s decision and take the appropriate actions in Mr. Demjanjuk’s behalf,” Nishnic said by phone from his office in a suburb of Cleveland.

Demjanjuk’s attorney, John H. Broadley in Washington, said he had not had a chance to study the ruling. “Certainly, we’re going to consider [seeking a] rehearing. We’re going to take a careful look at the decision,” he said.

Broadley said he had not looked into whether any country might be willing to accept Demjanjuk if he is deported.

Quarter-century legal battle
Demjanjuk (pronounced dem-YAHN-yuk), who came to the United States in 1952 and lives in Seven Hills, was originally accused in 1977 by the Justice Department of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a particularly sadistic Nazi guard who ran the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp in occupied Poland.

In 1942 and 1943, more than 850,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. Ivan the Terrible was a guard who herded the victims along the path to the gas chamber, hacking at his victims to speed them along.

Demjanjuk, who insisted that he was the victim of mistaken identity, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to be hanged in Israel. He eventually persuaded the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn his conviction based on new evidence that someone else was Ivan the Terrible.

Demjanjuk returned to his home in a suburb of Cleveland in 1993 and avoided publicity. His U.S. citizenship, which had been revoked in 1981, was reinstated in 1998.

But the Justice Department renewed its case, arguing that Demjanjuk was a guard at death camps other than Treblinka. The government no longer tried to link him to Ivan the Terrible.

Evidence against Demjanjuk
Prosecutors said documents kept by the Germans and archived by the Soviet Union showed that Demjanjuk was guard No. 1393 and was assigned to several Nazi death or forced-labor camps after he was trained at Trawniki in Poland.

His citizenship was revoked again in February 2002.

After the war, Demjanjuk was sent to a displaced persons camp, where he worked briefly as a driver for the U.S. Army. In 1950, he sought U.S. citizenship, claiming to have been a farmer in Sobibor, Poland, during the war.

Demjanjuk later said he lied about his wartime activities to avoid being sent back to Ukraine, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. But he continued to insist that he was not a camp guard.

He said he had been captured during combat in the Crimea and sent to German prisoner-of-war camps in Ukraine and Poland. He said he was forced into the Russian National Army, which was formed to assist the Germans in repelling the Allies.

Tens of thousands of Israelis watched Demjanjuk’s televised trial, which began in 1987 before three judges in a converted movie theater. Hundreds lined up daily to attend.

During the trial, a Holocaust survivor approached Demjanjuk and cried, “I saw his eyes, those murderous eyes!” At times, Demjanjuk blew kisses to the crowd or mugged for the television cameras, saying, “Hello, Cleveland.”

He was convicted in April 1988 and ordered to be hanged, but after a five-year legal battle, the conviction was thrown out. The Israeli Supreme Court said in 1993 that defense lawyers had raised reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible.

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