Justice Dept. reaffirms that Demjanjuk was a Nazi camp guard

July 17, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department held firmly yesterday to its 15-year-old claim that retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible" -- the Nazi guard who turned on the gas jets that killed thousands of Jews at a death camp in Poland during World War II.

Newly available evidence that "Ivan the Terrible" was someone else, the department contended in a 64-page legal document filed in a federal court, is not legally reliable.

Recollections of Jewish survivors of the death camp at Treblinka, Poland, that Demjanjuk was the hated executioner still stand solidly, it said.

"Ample evidence supports the conclusion that Demjanjuk is Ivan the Terrible," the department's brief summed up.

The brief, based on 647 pages of documents, went on to argue that a federal judge in Cleveland had enough evidence seven years ago tojustify sending Demjanjuk to Israel for trial for war crimes -- a trial that led to a guilty verdict and death sentence.

The department sent all of the documents to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, obeying a command of that court in June to supply all evidence "tending to show that . . . Demjanjuk is not . . . 'Ivan the Terrible' . . ."

In addition, the department put that court on notice that another legal brief will be filed Aug. 1, making the point that the Circuit Court has no authority to reopen the extradition case. In June, the Circuit Court said that it was pondering whether the extradition should be reopened because it might have been based on "erroneous information" identifying Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible."

The court also ordered the department to describe when it had found any evidence on Demjanjuk's side of that issue -- $l presumably, a demand designed to detect whether the department had withheld any of that kind of proof from Demjanjuk. Thedepartment's brief was filled with footnotes giving specific dates on when it had passed on most of its information to Demjanjuk's lawyers, and procedural explanations for a few failures to do that.

Although the Justice Department's aim yesterday was to justify the extradition anew, by putting new stress on the parts of its collected evidence indicating that Demjanjuk indeed was "Ivan the Terrible," its new arguments may help to bolster Israeli prosecutors' plea to Israel's Supreme Court to uphold the conviction and allow Demjanjuk to be executed.

Some justices of the Israeli court have expressed doubts about the verdict, raising the prospect that the 72-year-old Demjanjuk might win his freedom, and perhaps be able to return to live with his family in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills.

Those doubts have been based mainly on evidence contained in 1,500 pages of documents made available over the past year by officials of the former Soviet Union. Among those documents are statements from several former Treblinka guards, identifying a Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko as "Ivan the Terrible."

Those guards were questioned by Soviet officers before being executed for war crimes.

The Justice Department brief went briefly over the guards' claims, and then sought to dismiss them by saying that none of the guards ever gave formal testimony, and none ever was cross-examined.

But, it said, even if there was an executioner by that name at Treblinka, that cannot absolve Demjanjuk of his role in Nazi crimes there. "Theextermination of 900,000 Jews was not accomplished by one man," the brief commented.

Moreover, it contended, some of the newly available Soviet evidence confirms that Demjanjuk was a Nazi guard at "various death and concentration camps."

The evidence, according to the department, "at most raises factual questions for the Israeli courts to resolve. It is their task to determine whether Demjanjuk participated in the murder of Jews at Treblinka."

The brief argued that U.S. courts had a more limited task, not dealing with questions of guilt or innocence, when those courts first heard Israel's demand that he be turned over for war crimes prosecution in that country.

The U.S. courts' role, the department said, was simply to decide if there was enough evidence to justify extraditing Demjanjuk. That standard was fully met, and the extradition should not be reopened, even if the court ultimately rules it does have authority to reconsider, it said.

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