Nazi guard Demjanjuk wheeled into Munich trial

MUNICH, Germany Mon Nov 30, 2009 12:57pm EST

1 of 7. Accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk, covered in a blanket and in a wheelchair, is helped into a courtroom in Munich, November 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Dalder

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MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - John Demjanjuk was wheeled into a packed Munich court on Monday to face charges he helped kill 27,900 Jews during the Holocaust in what is likely to be Germany's last major Nazi-era war crimes trial.

Lying on a mobile hospital bed, the expressionless 89-year-old former U.S. carworker complained of pain to medics in the afternoon session and was given an injection, causing a 30-minute delay in the proceedings.

German state prosecutors accuse Demjanjuk, who was top of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted war criminals, of assisting in killings at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where prosecutors say at least 250,000 Jews were killed.

Demjanjuk denies he was involved in the Holocaust and his family insists he is too frail to stand trial.

But camp victims want justice.

"Justice takes a long time. I am not seeking revenge for Demjanjuk. He should tell the truth," said co-plaintiff Thomas Blatt, whose family was killed at the camp in 1943 and who at 15 was ordered to sort out belongings of Jews sent to be gassed.

"Today is important because it is the last big international case that everyone is interested in."

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel Office, told Reuters: "This is a good day for Germany, for justice and for people who lost love ones."

Demjanjuk, brought into the court in a wheelchair in the morning, wore a blue cap and was motionless at the start of proceedings, his mouth occasionally dropping open.

Wrapped in a blanket, he was pale and his eyes were closed most of the time. He showed no expression and it was impossible to tell if he was aware of what was being said. For the afternoon session, Demjanjuk lay on a hospital bed.

Demjanjuk was born in Ukraine and fought in the Red Army before being captured by the Nazis and recruited as a camp guard. He emigrated to the United States in 1951, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1958, and worked in the auto industry.

In May, he was extradited from the United States where he had lived in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

The prosecution is due to read the charges on Tuesday and Demjanjuk, who could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars, will have the chance to respond.

PRISONER OF WAR

Prosecutors plan to show the court documents they say prove he was at Sobibor and they will call about 20 witnesses.

Although he has acknowledged being at other camps, Demjanjuk has denied he was in Sobibor, which prosecutors say was run by 20-30 Nazi SS members and up to 150 former Soviet war prisoners.

In the Sobibor gas chambers, Jews died in 20 to 30 minutes after inhaling a toxic mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, say prosecutors, who argue Demjanjuk was at the camp for about six months in 1943.

His lawyers argue that Demjanuk was a Soviet prisoner of war whose life was in danger when he was recruited by the SS and point out many more senior Nazi camp officials were let off.

Defense lawyer Ulrich Busch put forward a motion that the court was prejudiced as people senior to Demjanjuk had previously been acquitted or not brought to trial.

To save his own life, a Trawniki (a prisoner recruited by the SS for camps) had to cooperate, Busch said. Some two thirds of Soviet prisoners of war died while in German captivity, mainly of starvation or disease.

"For this Trawniki (Demjanjuk) -- nobody even knew what he did -- to be deported or imported 7,000 km while others are left untouched, what is the reason for this?" said Busch, who accused the court of "moral and legal double standards".

The court will decide by Wednesday whether to accept Busch's petition.

"We will prove that a Ukrainian prisoner of war who escaped death by starvation, was forced to be a Trawniki, who could be shot if he tried to escape and against whom there is no evidence of a specific atrocity is also a victim and comparable to the Jewish survivor who worked in death machine of Sobibor in order to avoid death," Demjanjuk's son John said in a statement.

The afternoon session was dominated by information from three medical experts. The medical officer charged with assessing Demjanjuk said he was fit for trial. Due to his frailty, hearings are limited to two 90-minute sessions a day.

While the case has attracted enormous global interest, many Germans would prefer to draw a line under the Nazi past and focus on Germany's new-found role on the world stage.

Demjanjuk was extradited from the United States to Israel in 1986, accused of being "Ivan the Terrible", a notoriously sadistic guard at the Treblinka death camp. He was sentenced to death in 1988 but his conviction was overturned when new evidence showed another man was probably "Ivan".

News of the trial dominated headlines in Israel but there was not the same degree of outpouring of emotion there was over his trial in Israel.

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