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U.S. Autoworker Convicted In Death Camp Case


A court in southern Germany today found John Demjanjuk guilty of accessory to mass murder. He had been a guard at a Nazi death camp where tens of thousands of Jews and Soviet prisoners were killed. Demjanjuk is now 91 years old. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The Munich court found the Ukrainian native aided and abetted murder in the death of nearly 30,000 people, mostly Jews and some Soviet prisoners of war who were killed during the time he was a guard at the Nazi Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland.

The presiding judge said the court was convinced that Demjanjuk was a guard at the camp, and as the judge put it: Part of the Nazis' machinery of destruction.

Today in the courtroom, Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair and showed no visible emotion as the verdict was read. Outside the courthouse, 69-year-old Vera Dejung(ph), whose family was murdered at Sobibor, said she was content with verdict and found it telling Demjanjuk declined to speak when the judge offered him the chance.

Ms. VERA DEJUNG: I'm relieved that he was found guilty and that he's five more years in prison. For me, it could have been one year, two years, 10 years -doesn't make any difference. And the fact that he doesn't talk, for me, only makes him weaker because he's afraid to talk and he doesn't want to talk. He can't look us in the eye. He's afraid to look at us.

WESTERVELT: This case broke new legal ground here. His defense lawyer, Ulrich Busch, had offered what over the years has become a regular defense for Nazi war criminals: That Demjanjuk was just following orders and was afraid not to.

Mr. ULRICH BUSCH (Defense Attorney): There is a command you have to obey and you take the risk to risk your life if you don't obey. So they're in a completely different position than the main perpetrators.

WESTERVELT: But prosecutors successfully argued that Demjanjuk was at Sobibor as a guard and therefore complicit in mass murder, and not an innocuous cog in the Nazi terror machine. It's the first time that legal argument has been successful in the prosecution of low-level Nazis in a German court.

Demjanjuk, who grew up in Ukraine, long denied he was a death camp guard. He said as a soviet soldier who was wounded and captured by the Germans, he was a victim of the Nazi state.

But prosecutors say the evidence shows that after his capture he agreed to work with the SS. Prosecutors presented an ID card and other documents to show that he was an SS-trained guard at Sobibor.

Demjanjuk has been in and out of court for decades. In the 1980s, he was accused of being the brutal guard nicknamed Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was tried and convicted in Israel and sentenced to death.

But he was later freed when an Israeli court overturned that ruling, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. A court spokeswoman today said Demjanjuk will be free while he appeals because he's old and frail and not a flight risk. He's also stateless. He was stripped of his U.S. citizenship a second time in 2002 for lying about his war record on immigration forms.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.