Justice Dept. defends stripping Demjanjuk of his citizenship

December 31, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department asked a federal judge yesterday to erase any doubt that retired Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk committed Nazi war crimes and thus forfeited his U.S. citizenship and his right to stay in this country.

In a move to ensure the strongest legal basis for a new effort to deport the 73-year-old Ukraine native, the department urged U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti of Cleveland to reaffirm a 12-year-old ruling that had stripped Mr. Demjanjuk of his citizenship.

Attorney General Janet Reno said in a brief statement that her goal is "prompt removal" of Mr. Demjanjuk from the United States.

But, she added, "we want there to be no doubt in any reasonable person's mind that Mr. Demjanjuk served in Nazi death camps and concealed that fact when he applied to become a U.S. citizen." Under U.S. law, a Nazi war criminal may not stay in this country and cannot be a citizen.

At the same time, the department released a scathing criticism of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati for its ruling six weeks ago accusing department lawyers of illegally manipulating U.S. court cases against Mr. Demjanjuk.

That decision, by a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court, should be reconsidered by the full 13-member Circuit Court, the department contended yesterday. In language that is unusually strong in a government document discussing a court ruling, the department charged that the Circuit Court overstepped its authority, made repeated factual errors, created new law without any foundation, cast a shadow on the continuing efforts to get Mr. Demjanjuk out of the country, "eroded public confidence" in the prior court cases involving Mr. Demjanjuk, and "damaged the reputations" of department lawyers who handled those cases.

The department urged the full court to reinstate a temporary ruling by a federal judge in Nashville, Tenn., last June, urging that no action be taken against any Justice Department attorneys for their actions in any of the Demjanjuk cases.

The Circuit Court panel based its ruling on the way department lawyers had handled evidence that they thought proved Mr. Demjanjuk was the hated "Ivan the Terrible" who ran the gas ovens and brutally slashed prisoners at the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland, during World War II.

On the basis of the "Ivan the Terrible" identification, Mr. Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel, where he was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hang. The Israeli Supreme Court, however, overturned that conviction and released him on the basis of newly discovered evidence that cast doubt on his identification as "Ivan."

Mr. Demjanjuk returned to this country in September, and has been living in seclusion with his family in a Cleveland suburb. The Justice Department, even while insisting yesterday that nothing had been done illegally in any of the Demjanjuk cases, did take the precaution of asking Judge Battisti to give Mr. Demjanjuk another chance to try to defend his citizenship and his presence in this country. It noted that Mr. Demjanjuk had claimed that all cases against him were considered "in the shadow" of the charge that he was "Ivan the Terrible." Thus, the department said, Mr. Demjanjuk should be given a chance to offer any evidence he has so that his claim can be "laid to rest."

"In light of the extraordinary public scrutiny of this case," the department said, "providing Demjanjuk with a final opportunity in an American court to refute the evidence of his Nazi involvement will bolster confidence" in the nullification of his citizenship.

Evidence that Mr. Demjanjuk was also a Nazi guard at an SS training camp in Trawniki, Poland, is enough to establish that he was a war criminal, whether or not he was "Ivan the Terrible" at Treblinka, the department noted. It also said there is evidence that he was a guard at the Nazi death camp in Sobibor, Poland.

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