By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 12, 2009
German prosecutors said yesterday they have issued an arrest warrant for an 88-year-old retired autoworker in Ohio, charging him with complicity in the murder of thousands of people at a Nazi death camp six decades ago.
Prosecutors in Munich charged John Demjanjuk, a native Ukrainian who immigrated to the United States in 1952, with 29,000 counts of accessory to murder. U.S. and German authorities allege that Demjanjuk worked in 1943 as a Nazi guard at the Sobibor concentration camp in what is present-day Polish territory.
If Demjanjuk is transferred to Munich, his case could mark Germany's final major Nazi war-crimes trial. Although authorities say they are pursuing other targets, the few former Nazis still alive are in their 80s or 90s, raising doubts about their fitness to stand trial.
Demjanjuk's family has maintained his innocence and argued that he is suffering from kidney and blood disorders and is too ill to survive the rigors of a lengthy prosecution in another country.
Some Jewish groups, which have criticized Germany in the past for moving too cautiously in the Demjanjuk case, praised the decision to issue the arrest warrant.
"We're extremely pleased that the decision was finally made," said Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Jerusalem office. "We're talking about someone who was an active participant in mass annihilation."
Demjanjuk has beaten efforts to prosecute him in the past. In 1986, the United States extradited him to Israel, where he was sentenced to death on charges that he had been a Nazi guard known as Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. But he was freed on appeal in 1993 after evidence emerged that investigators had confused him with another Ukrainian guard.
Israel sent him back to the United States, where officials have since stripped him of his American citizenship and have been trying to deport him, charging that he covered up his Nazi past on immigration forms. Until now, no other countries were willing to take him. The U.S. government lacks jurisdiction to try him for his actions during World War II.
German judicial authorities said they would send a copy of the arrest warrant to Washington. But it was unclear how long it might take to transfer him to Germany.
"If the Americans are legally able to deport him -- let's say they put him on a plane -- the arrest warrant in Germany could be applied upon arrival here," said Eva Schmierer, a spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry in Berlin. "If that is not the case, it is quite a bit more complicated to go through formal extradition."
Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, declined to comment on the next steps in the case. She said U.S. officials have "been in close contact with our German counterparts on this matter, and we will continue to offer our support and assistance."
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.