Still Terrible, but the Wrong Ivan

July 30, 1993

The Israeli Supreme Court's ruling that John Demjanjuk was probably a brutal concentration camp guard but not "Ivan the Terrible" -- the only charge before it -- is testimony to the integrity of the Jewish nation's courts. Emotions in Israel and in the world Jewish community were deeply stirred by the heart-rending testimony of five survivors of Treblinka, who sought to identify Demjanjuk as the notorious guard who ran the Nazi gas chamber which exterminated 900,000 Holocaust victims.

But after his conviction by a lower court, documents unearthed in previously secret Soviet police files cast considerable doubt on such identification 50 years after the event. The documents confirmed once again what lawyers on both sides of the criminal justice system know -- that eye-witnesses can be fallible, especially in traumatic cases brought to trial when memories have blurred.

On that basis the Israeli high court has acquitted Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio auto worker who emigrated to this country from Ukraine after World War II. "This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and the mind, but have only what their eyes see and read," explained the five jurists. No one who believes in the Western concept of justice could disagree.

Unhappily for the U.S. Justice Department, the Demjanjuk case is not closed here. The 73-year-old retiree was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and subsequently deported to Israel for trial. Doubts that he received a fair trial here have been reinforced by a federal judge who ruled a month ago that federal prosecutors withheld evidence and misled defense attorneys. Like his Israeli counterparts, Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr., believes Demjanjuk was a concentration camp guard, though not necessarily "Ivan the Terrible." That finding is scheduled for review by a U.S. appellate court in Cincinnati next week.

Demjanjuk's family in a Cleveland suburb wants him home. But he has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship and has no automatic right to return. Courts in the U.S. and Israel have determined he was a Nazi concentration camp guard, which is enough to exclude him from U.S. residence. Attorney General Janet Reno should tell his family in no uncertain terms he is unwelcome.

Some Nazi-hunters fear the Demjanjuk case will make future convictions on eye-witness testimony impossible. Perhaps it will. But such convictions, if unsupported by other evidence, are shaky. Thousands of Nazi collaborators survive, some in the U.S. They should be made to pay for their war crimes, even a half-century later, but only according to the high standards that apply in U.S. and Israeli courts: guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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