BERLIN (JTA) — A Munich court has found John Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes, and sentenced the 91-year-old former autoworker to five years in prison.
Thursday’s verdict came after 93 court days, including deeply affecting testimony from Dutch survivors and their kin, and monologues by Demjanjuk’s chief attorney, Ulrich Busch, who claimed his client was just as much a victim of Germany as any Jew.
Reacting to the early news, Jewish leaders expressed gratitude to the court.
"The most important thing is that he was tried and judged and for the last days of his life is confirmed as a perpetrator," Stefan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told JTA in a telephone interview. "How long he is going to serve is secondary."
"Even if there is going to be another appeal, as his attorney has warned, this court ruling now is a very important step in the direction of justice after more than 65 years of injustice," he added.
Demjanjuk, born in Ukraine, was charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in Sobibor. He was present at nearly every court date, always in a wheelchair or hospital bed. He wore sunglasses, and said virtually nothing for the duration of the trial. In April 2010, Busch read aloud a statement in which Demjanjuk called the trial "torture," relieved only by his care attendants.
Survivor Thomas Blatt, one of the rare escapees from Sobibor, told JTA during the trial that “All the guards [at Sobibor] were murderers… it is enough to prove he was there.”
Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after World War II. He lived in suburban Cleveland from 1952. His later years were spent fighting accusations of involvement in wartime crimes against humanity: he was accused in the early 1980s of being a guard at the Treblinka death camp, but was released from jail in Israel after seven years when another Ukrainian was identified as the guard in question.
The U.S. Justice Department later reported that Demjanjuk was suspected of having been a guard at Sobibor and was liable for deportation because his U.S. citizenship had been granted based on false information. His citizenship was revoked in 2002 and deportation was approved in 2005. He was deported in March 2009.
Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA he was pleased with the verdict against Demjanjuk, but disappointed that a German court in Ingolstadt decided Wednesday not to extradite another accused war criminal to Holland.
A spokesperson for the court said that 88-year-old Klaas Carel Faber, convicted more than 60 years ago by a Dutch court of complicity in 22 wartime murders, would not be extradited because Faber’s consent as a German citizen was required, and he refused, according to the Associated Press.
"This decision is absolutely outrageous," Zuroff said in an interview from Jerusalem. "It makes my blood boil."
Kramer noted that, of 150,000 war crimes investigations in post-war West Germany, only 6,500 resulted in trials.