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Posted Thursday, May 27, 1999

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May 26, 1999

Torture Ban Argued in Israel

MARK LAVIE Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON-- The Justice Department Wednesday renewed its court battle to strip U.S. citizenship from John Demjanjuk, an alleged Nazi death camp guard who escaped a death penalty in Israel when evidence arose that he was a victim of mistaken identity.

Mark Duncan/AP

The Justice Department renewed its court battle to strip U.S. citizenship from John Demjanjuk, an alleged Nazi death camp guard. The department's Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, which was criticized by a U.S. appellate court for "reckless" withholding of evidence that might have cleared Demjanjuk in the earlier case, filed a new complaint in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, where the 79-year-old retired auto worker lives.

The new complaint alleges that Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp and at the Majdanek and Flossenburg concentration camps during World War II and served in the Nazi SS-run "Trawniki" unit that participated in a campaign to annihilate the Jews of Europe.

The government dropped its previous claim that Demjanjuk was a guard known as "Ivan the Terrible," who operated a gas chamber at the Treblinka extermination camp. Throughout the proceedings against him, which began 22 years ago, Demjanjuk has denied serving as a guard in any concentration or death camp. But both the Israeli Supreme Court and a U.S. federal judge assigned to review the earlier proceedings cast doubt on Demjanjuk's alibi.

The Israeli Supreme Court found Demjanjuk's alibi "unreasonable" and flatly concluded, "It is a lie." U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., who was appointed by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to examine the government's conduct in the case, stated, "Mr. Demjanjuk's alibi was so incredible as to legitimately raise the suspicions of his prosecutors that he lied about everything."

Demjanjuk's son-in-law, Ed Nishnic, responding Wednesday on his behalf, said that, although the Justice Department earlier accused Demjanjuk "of being the most heinous war criminal of World War II," that case "proved that the Department of Justice defrauded the American courts, deceived the American people and destroyed Mr. Demjanjuk's good name. Hopefully, it will not take another 22 years to clear his name once again."

In February of last year, a federal trial court threw out the earlier order stripping Demjanjuk of his U.S. citizenship but specifically permitted the government to file a new complaint if it believed that evidence warranted it. In that new complaint Wednesday, the government alleged he was an armed guard at Sobibor, which was established by the Nazis solely to murder Jewish civilians.

It said Jewish prisoners arrived by train and armed guards ordered them to strip naked and then herded them into gas chambers. Exhaust from a diesel engine was then pumped into the Sobibor gas chambers, where more than 200,000 men, women and children were murdered, the government said.

The new complaint also alleged Demjanjuk began working for the Nazis in 1942 at the Trawniki training camp, an SS-run base in Nazi-occupied Poland that prepared Eastern European recruits to assist German soldiers in implementing Adolf Hitler's genocidal race policies. Demjanjuk and other Trawniki men participated in "Operation Reinhard," a Nazi program that rounded up 1.7 million Jews in Poland and murdered them in mass shootings or in death camps with poison gas, the government alleged.

Ten of thousands of other Jews were confined to slave labor camps where many starved, died of exhaustion or were murdered. The government said Demjanjuk was an armed guard at Majdanek concentration camp in the occupied Polish city of Lublin. This camp functioned as both a death and a labor camp, and between 200,000 and 360,000 prisoners died or were murdered there.

Demjanjuk also served as an SS guard at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where 30,000 prisoners died, the government charged. Refiling the case is "the right and courageous thing to do," said Neal Sher, who headed the investigations office from 1983 to 1994. "Every judge to look at this case in United States and Israel had no doubt about documents being fully authentic in establishing his service at Sobibor and the other camps and that his abilis were fabricated."

When he entered the United States in 1952 and became a naturalized citizen in 1958, Demjanjuk concealed his work on behalf of the Nazis by claiming he spent the war working on a farm in Sobibor, Poland, and as a laborer in Germany, the government alleged. In 1981, a federal court in Cleveland revoked his citizenship after finding that he was "Ivan the Terrible" and a guard at Trawniki.

The court never ruled on the government's contention that he was a guard at Sobibor. Demjanjuk was ordered deported, but instead was extradited to Israel in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of being "Ivan the Terrible" by an Israeli trial court and sentenced to death. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court reversed the conviction after prosecutors discovered evidence from the Soviet Union suggested that another man could have been Ivan the Terrible.

Although the Israeli Supreme Court found that Demjanjuk had been a guard at Sobibor, Trawniki, Majdanek and Flossenburg, it released him on grounds that he had been extradited to stand trial on the Ivan the Terrible charges. Demjanjuk subsequently returned to the United States.

Timeline of Demjanjuk Case

By The Associated Press

Key dates in the case of John Demjanjuk:

 Aug. 25, 1977 -- Justice Department seeks to revoke his U.S. citizenship, alleging Demjanjuk hid a past as SS death camp guard "Ivan the Terrible."

  June 23, 1981 -- U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti revokes citizenship.

  Feb. 27, 1986 -- Demjanjuk is extradited to Israel.

  April 25, 1988 -- A week after finding Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a three-judge Israeli panel sentences him to death.

  June 30, 1988 -- Demjanjuk appeals conviction.

  June 5, 1992 -- 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reopens extradition case, saying warrant may have been based on erroneous information.

  June 8, 1992 -- Israeli Supreme Court judge says prosecutors must present ironclad case that Demjanjuk was "Ivan" or there's no point in proceeding.

  June 30, 1993 -- U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, appointed to investigate Justice Department action, says he found "substantial doubt" that Demjanjuk was "Ivan" but upholds extradition.

  July 29, 1993 -- Israeli Supreme Court rules 5-0 that Demjanjuk was not "Ivan the Terrible."

  Aug. 6, 1993 -- Appeals Court rules U.S. government must allow Demjanjuk to return to United States while the court investigates his extradition.

  Aug. 11, 1993 -- Israeli attorney general recommends Demjanjuk be deported rather than tried for new Nazi war crimes.

  Sept. 22, 1993 -- Demjanjuk returns to United States.

  Sept. 24, 1993 -- Appeals Court hears arguments on whether U.S. government withheld evidence that might have helped Demjanjuk's defense.

  Nov. 17, 1993 -- Appeals Court rules government fraudulently withheld evidence; reverses its own order that authorized Demjanjuk's extradition in 1986.

  April 3, 1997 -- Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper publishes interview in which Demjanjuk broke years of silence and said he was bitter and angry with his prosecution by the Jewish state.

  Nov. 25, 1997 -- Demjanjuk's attorney, citing alleged fraud by government attorneys, asks a judge to restore Demjanjuk's citizenship.

  Feb. 20, 1998 -- U.S. District Court Judge Paul R. Matia overturns decision stripping Demjanjuk of his citizenship.

  May 19, 1999 - U.S. Justice Department moves to revoke Demjanjuk's citizenship, saying he allegedly was a death camp guard.

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