German authorities will seek the extradition of alleged former Nazi death camp guard from the U.S. to prosecute him, the country's top Holocaust crimes prosecutor said Thursday.
Authorities are convinced there is enough evidence to charge John Demjanjuk, a former autoworker from suburban Cleveland, with murder in connection with the deaths of Jewish prisoners at Sobibor. Murder is the only World War II-era crime on which the statute of limitations has not elapsed in Germany, prosecutor Kurt Schrimm said.
"If we were not convinced that the evidence would be enough then we wouldn't go forward," Schrimm told The Associated Press. "We think that he can be convicted."
However, John Broadley, a Washington lawyer who represents Demjanjuk, suggested that his client may be too infirm to be transported to Germany.
"I don't know what the Germans have in mind and I haven't had a chance to think it through," Broadley said. "I do know that Mr. Demjanjuk is 88 years old and he's in very poor physical condition. He can't get up out of a chair by himself."
Demjanjuk contends that he served in the Soviet Army, was captured by Germany in 1942 and became a prisoner of war.
Schrimm refused to provide details of the evidence, other than to say that it was related to his alleged activities as a guard at the Sobibor death camp. He would not say how many killings Demjanjuk is suspected of being involved in.
Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said there are allegations from a fellow guard that Demjanjuk played "an active part in the mass murder of Jews deported to the Sobibor death camp."
No. 2 on wanted list
"I very much welcome the decision made by the German authorities to seek the extradition of Demjanjuk and hope that it will be expedited so that he can be prosecuted in Germany and punished for his crimes," Zuroff said.
He noted that Demjanjuk is No. 2 on the center's "most wanted" list of Nazi war criminals — below only the brutal SS doctor Aribert Heim, whose whereabouts are unknown.
"The issue is that he was involved in mass murder; for some of our suspects, we have proof that they were responsible for individual murders, but here we are talking about someone who participated in the process that led to the annihilation of a quarter million Jews" at Sobibor, Zuroff said.
A native of Ukraine, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986, when the U.S. Justice Department believed he was the sadistic Nazi guard known as Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka death camp.
The Israeli high court freed him after receiving evidence another Ukrainian, not Demjanjuk, was that Nazi guard.
Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship was restored in 1998, but the Justice Department renewed its case, saying he was another Nazi guard and could be deported for falsifying information on his applications when entering the U.S. in 1952 and to become a citizen in 1958.
On May 19, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to consider Demjanjuk's appeal against deportation, opening the doors for the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which oversees cases against former Nazis, to start proceedings.
Still it was unclear which country would take him — his native Ukraine, Poland, where the Sobibor death camp was located, or Germany.
Motion could delay extradition
Even with Germany seeking his extradition, the process may take some time.
Because the alleged crimes were committed outside Germany by a non-German, there is no German prosecutors' office that would automatically have jurisdiction — so Schrimm's office has to petition Germany's highest criminal court to have the case assigned.
He said he expects to have the motion filed within the next two months; and once the case is assigned, the local prosecutors could then proceed with asking for extradition.
Despite that, Schrimm said he still thought Demjanjuk could be brought to Germany by the end of the year.
"Mr. Demjanjuk is very old, so those involved are trying to do it quickly," he said.
Demjanjuk's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said his father was being treated for an illness, though he would not say what.
"He's not in good health right now," he said.