Israeli prosecutor refuses new trial, clearing way for Demjanjuk's freedom

August 12, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau Danna Bethlehem contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- The calm of the courtroom broke with a shout yesterday soon after Israel's attorney general recommended freeing a man who may have been a Nazi death camp guard.

"You're despicable. You are defending the murderer of Jews," raged an old man with a crutch in the back of the Israel Supreme Court. He was quickly hustled out.

The long case of John Demjanjuk, accused of being a Nazi war criminal, appears to be dragging to a bitter, emotional and inconclusive end.

Attorney General Yosef Harish said yesterday he could not prosecute Mr. Demjanjuk again because the case had become so troubled in the mist of old memories and the knots of legal tentacles.

His conclusion gives the Israel High Court few options but to agree and to free Mr. Demjanjuk, who had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death -- and then acquitted two weeks ago. The court ruling is expected by the end of this week or early next week.

"With heartfelt grief I have reached the conclusion that we are no longer able to go back" to prosecute Mr. Demjanjuk, said the statement from Mr. Harish to the court. "The laws of nations . . . do not permit us completely to lay bare the deeds of Wachmann Demjanjuk."

Seven petitions filed with the high court sought the trial of Mr. Demjanjuk as an accessory to murder as a guard, or "wachmann," at the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where an estimated 250,000 Jews died in World War II.

Evidence he was there came out during the trial in which he was convicted of being the "Ivan the Terrible" who ran the gas chambers at another Polish camp, Treblinka.

His 1988 conviction and death sentence were overturned July 29 when new evidence cast doubt that he was Ivan.

If he is released, Mr. Demjanjuk, 73, a Ukrainian who immigrated to Cleveland, might be deported to the United States or go to his native Ukraine.

His release would be a blow to what is considered a national obligation of Israel: to find and prosecute the persons who were responsible for the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews during World War II.

"The wiser thing to do is put Demjanjuk on trial for his crimes against the Jewish people, and not to look at procedures," said Noam Federman, a leader of Israel's far-right Kach movement and one of those who argued yesterday before the three-judge panel.

"Even if he was not Ivan the Terrible, he was a wachmann, and he was an expert at destroying Jews," Mr. Federman said in court.

But Mr. Harish concluded that "it is neither beneficial to the public nor proper to delve once more into this trial."

The legal complexities made such a trial impossible, the attorney general said.

The tortured legal history of Mr. Demjanjuk's extradition from the United States and his trial here had created a trap. If allegations he was a guard at Sobibor are new and separate charges, they are different from the allegations for which he was extradited from the United States in 1986, and Israel could not legally prosecute him.

If they are not new charges, Mr. Demjanjuk would face impermissible double jeopardy, the attorney general said.

"I assume all the motions, which are ridiculous from a legal perspective, will be denied," said Yoram Sheftel, Mr. Demjanjuk's attorney. "I am happy [Mr. Harish] did not change his opinion under pressure from the street."

The Demjanjuk case has been a trauma for many in Israel, and the passions were much in evidence yesterday.

Efriam Yehezkeli, 75, whose family was killed by the Nazis, pleaded with the Supreme Court for retribution.

"I'm asking how can it be that in Israel, they want to release the murderer of our people?" he asked.

Mr. Yehezkeli addressed the court opposite Mr. Sheftel, the lawyer for Mr. Demjanjuk.

In 1988, Mr. Yehezkeli threw acid into the eye of the lawyer; he was sentenced to two years in prison for the attack.

Mr. Demjanjuk was not present in the courtroom. He remained in the jail cell where he has spent the past seven years. Whether the retired U.S. autoworker would be allowed back to his home in the United States if the court here orders his deportation remains much in question.

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