U.S. again sues to tie Ohioan to Holocaust

New approach taken in 22-year campaign against Demjanjuk

May 20, 1999|By LYLE DENNISTON | LYLE DENNISTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration moved yesterday to restart one of the government's most famous Nazi-hunting cases -- the campaign begun 22 years ago to strip John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio autoworker, of his U.S. citizenship and deport him as a war criminal.

Demjanjuk, once labeled the notorious "Ivan the Terrible," a mass murderer at a Nazi death camp in Treblinka, Poland, has seen his case move repeatedly in and out of U.S. courts. It returned to federal court in Cleveland yesterday as the Justice Department filed a new demand that he be denaturalized.

At one point during the dispute's long legal journey, a federal appeals court in 1993 sharply rebuked Justice Department lawyers for "disregard of the truth" by withholding documents that Demjanjuk could have used to contest the charges.

The controversy also made its way to Israel's Supreme Court, after a U.S. court ordered Demjanjuk sent to Israel for trial on war crimes charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

But his conviction and death sentence were overturned in 1993 by the Israeli court, which said that newly available Soviet documents had cast doubt on the Ivan the Terrible identification -- the key to his conviction.

Still, the ultimate fate of the 79-year-old Ohioan remains unsettled. He has been back in this country for more than five years and is living in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills.

The Justice Department's new lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, came after officials decided to drop their claim that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible. This time, the lawsuit is based on other, long-available evidence that Demjanjuk was a Nazi guard at other concentration camps.

For now, the department is asking the courts only to nullify the citizenship that Demjanjuk gained nearly 41 years ago.

If that request succeeds, the department said, it will seek to deport Demjanjuk. Though he is a native of Ukraine, it is unclear what country the Justice Department would seek for his destination.

'One objective'

A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified, said "the Nazi [hunting] unit at the Justice Department has one objective: to rid this nation of individuals who participated in Nazi-sponsored acts of persecution." The new lawsuit, that official said, "seeks to fulfill that objective."

The Israel Supreme Court said there was "reasonable doubt" that he was Ivan the Terrible, the Justice Department official noted.

But he added that the Israeli court "did not give him a clean bill of health." The Israel Supreme Court said that other evidence indicated that Demjanjuk had taken some part in "the extermination process."

Ed Nishnic, Demjanjuk's son-in-law, said yesterday, "Hopefully, it will not take another 22 years to clear his name once again." He accused the Justice Department of having acted earlier to destroy Demjanjuk's "good name" when it "defrauded the American courts and deceived the American people" in his case.

Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., an Ohio Democrat who has long been a critic of the Justice Department's handling of the Demjanjuk case, declined to comment yesterday on the new development.

Demjanjuk has always insisted that he was never a Nazi guard during World War II. He contended that he had never been at any of the three death camps in Poland where, U.S. Nazi hunters earlier claimed, he had served:

Treblinka, Trawniki and Sobibor.

In the new lawsuit, the Justice Department omitted all references to Treblinka and to Demjanjuk's alleged role as Ivan the Terrible, the brutal operator of gas chambers that murdered 900,000 Jews at that camp.

But it contended that Demjanjuk was a guard at four other Nazi camps in Poland -- Trawniki, Sobibor, Okzow and Majdanek -- and at the Flossenburg camp in eastern Bavaria, Germany, near the present Czech border.

'Operation Reinhard'

It accused Demjanjuk of having played an active role in atrocities as part of the Nazis' "Operation Reinhard," which led to the murders of 1.7 million Jews and to the forced labor of millions of other Jews.

Demjanjuk lied about all those activities, the department contended, when he arrived in this country as a "displaced person" in 1952 and when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1958. As a result of his Nazi service and his lies about it, the lawsuit added, Demjanjuk had no right to become a citizen, or even to enter the United States.

The Justice Department asked that Demjanjuk's citizenship be stripped, and that he surrender his passport and anything else he has that shows him to be a U.S. citizen.

Technically, Demjanjuk's citizenship, initially removed by court order in 1981 in the government's first denaturalization case, has been restored since a ruling 15 months ago by U.S. District Judge Paul R. Matia of Cleveland.

A tainted case

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