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Demjanjuk Goes On Trial In Germany

Former Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk was transported in an ambulance from the airport in Munich to the Stadelheim prison in May.
(RFE/RL) -- The trial of 89-year-old John Demjanjuk, accused of helping to kill nearly 28,000 Jews during World War II, opens in Munich today, in what is expected to be Germany’s last major Nazi-era criminal case.

Retired U.S. auto worker Demjanjuk, who was born in Kyiv, denies the charges. He is expected to appear in court in a wheelchair.

Demjanjuk is accused of serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, and is charged with helping to kill 27,900 people.

Demjanjuk admits serving at other camps, but says he was never served at Sobibor. And he says he, too, was a victim -- as a captured Soviet soldier held as a prisoner of war.

Demjanjuk’s lawyer, Guenther Maull, said he expects his client to be acquitted. “After all, he is not accused of having himself committed specific crimes at specific times, but rather, he allegedly was a hand for other perpetrators, namely the main perpetrators,” who Maull named as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Richard Heidrich.

But prosecutors give a different story. They allege that after Demjanjuk was captured he volunteered to serve with the SS and was sent to serve in Sobibor, where some 250,000 Jews died in the gas chambers.

No Living Witnesses

The trial presents some challenges.

One is that Demjanjuk is said to be frail, and so the hearings will be limited to two 90-minute sessions a day, meaning the trial could last until May.

Another is that there are no direct living witnesses in the case. There are no Sobibor survivors who say they remember Demjanjuk.

But prosecutors say they have evidence. They plan to show documents including an identity card that they say prove he was at Sobibor. And there will be evidence from statements made thirty years ago by a Ukrainian -- now dead -- who said he served along with Demjanjuk at Sobibor.

"The Munich state prosecutor's office is aware that this will not be an easy trial,” senior prosecutor Barbara Stockinger said. “For one thing...the accused is already 89 years old and also because some of the witnesses who will be heard here are of a remarkable age. But there is a large amount of evidence which can be looked at so that we believe that the trial will proceed a little slower than usual but that the crime can be proven to the accused."

This is the second trial for Demjanjuk, who was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 after Holocaust survivors said he was "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious guard at another Nazi concentration camp, Treblinka.

His conviction was later overturned after evidence showed another man had probably been the Treblinka guard.

But several years after returning to his home in Ohio, evidence emerged suggesting he had worked as a guard at other Nazi death camps.

He was extradited earlier this year to Germany after losing a long battle against deportation.

Families of some Sobibor victims say they see this trial as a last chance at justice.

"I will for the first time have the chance to assist in bringing to justice one of the alleged participants in the murder of my mother and my eldest brother," said Kurt Gutmann, whose relatives died at the camp in 1943.

Demjanjuk faces 15 years in jail if convicted.