Doubts prompt review of 'Ivan the Terrible' case

December 18, 1991|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Supreme Court will hear new evidence in a few days asserting that John Demjanjuk, convicted and sentenced to death here as the monstrous "Ivan the Terrible" of the Treblinka death camp, is the wrong man and the victim of "a complete frame-up" by U.S. and Israeli authorities.

At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department has acknowledged that it is reviewing the Demjanjuk case.

Demjanjuk's Israeli lawyer says that copies of diplomatic cables, official letters and other documents that he recently obtained show that the U.S. Justice Department knew as far back as 1978 that Ivan the Terrible was not Demjanjuk, a 71-year-old retired auto worker from Cleveland.

Moreover, that information was sent to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and then to Israeli officials, according to the lawyer, Yoram Sheftel.

Without referring to those specific assertions, a senior Justice Department official in Washington said yesterday that the Demjanjuk case was being reviewed.

"We're giving it a high priority," the Justice Department official said of the case, "and we'll take whatever steps are appropriate when we complete the review."

Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s, was stripped of his American citizenship in 1981 after an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, and then extradited to Israel five years later. He was found guilty of war crimes in 1988 after a trial that galvanized this country for weeks and produced a flood of recollections of the Nazi Holocaust.

The Israeli Supreme Court is scheduled to examine Mr. Sheftel's new evidence at a hearing on Monday. The chief Israeli prosecutor in the case, Michael Shaked, said he would not agree to an interview while the matter was before the courts.

But he has been reported by the Israeli press and the state-owned radio as having new evidence of his own to counter the defense assertions.

The prosecution has contended that, even leaving Treblinka aside, it can show that Demjanjuk was at another camp in Poland, Sobibor.

At a court hearing in August, Mr. Shaked said, "If this man pushed a single child into the gas chambers, at Sobibor or Treblinka, is there any doubt whether he should be brought to justice?"

But Mr. Sheftel replies that the accusation all along has been specifically that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, the sadistic operator of the gas chamber at Treblinka, where some 900,000 Jews died in 1942 and 1943.

The crucial materials that Mr. Sheftel asserts the Americans had in their hands 13 years ago were Soviet documents that gave the recollections of 21 former Treblinka camp guards who were captured in the 1940s and 1950s, and who later died or were executed as Nazi collaborators.

Repeatedly, those men identified Ivan as one Ivan Marchenko.

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