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John Demjanjuk arrives in wheelchair for final great Nazi trial

'Frail and feeble': John Demjanjuk arrives in court today, where he is accused of helping kill 28,000 Jews

The trial of John Demjanjuk began today, with the defendant arriving in court in a wheelchair and covered in a blanket.

The 'frail' 89-year-old is accused of helping to kill almost 28,000 Jews.

He is set to deny being a guard at Sobibor concentration camp in occupied Poland during the Second World War.

But the families of his alleged 27,900 victims insist he must face justice in what is billed as the last great Nazi war crimes case.

Some 250 journalists from around the world are in Munich for the trial, which will be limited to two 90-minute sessions per day due to his frail condition.

Demjanjuk's family claim he is suffering from a bone marrow disease and could have just months to live.

The trial is expected to last until May.

Prosecutors are confident the evidence - documents and statements from former guards - will place Demjanjuk inside the camp, where 250,000 Jews were killed.

'The totality of evidence is over-whelming,' said Barbara Stockinger, speaking for Germany's state prosecutor, Hans-Joachim Lutz.

A guilty verdict from the three judges could result in a maximum 15 years in jail, which would effectively be a life sentence.

Demjanjuk, who was extradited from the US in May after months of legal wrangling, denies involvement in the Holocaust. His defence team says he is a fail and feeble old man, the victim of a Kafkaesque plot hatched long ago by vengeful KGB agents.
His physical condition alters by the day, even by the hour,' said defence lawyer Guenther Maull. 'He is an old man suffering from a range of ailments.

'His mood swings, too. Sometimes you think he as an old man who is mentally absent but you don't know if it's a general condition or an illness.'

Thomas Blatt, whose younger brother and parents were killed at Sobibor, has travelled from his American home to see the trial.

'It is important to hear the testimony of those times, for young people to truly know the meaning of the hell on earth that was Sobibor,' he 88-year-old told the Daily Mirror.

'The stink of carbon monoxide, the naked little children going to be gassed, the flames that licked out of the furnace chimney as all you knew and loved evaporated before your eyes.

'Demjanjuk is not an old man who deserves pity but who should come to terms with what he did.'

Demjanjuk, a retired Ukrainian-born car worker, maintains he joined the Soviet army in 1941 and then became a German prisoner of war, serving the rest of the war in captivity.

Memorial to the dead: Stones with plaques commemorating the people killed at Sobibor death camp in Poland

Prosecutors agree he was captured by the Germans in May 1942 but claim he accepted a deal to become a guard at a 'special camp', rather than face almost certain death at a PoW base.

According to the indictment, he served as a simple 'wachmann,' or guard, under the SS. As such, he is the lowest-ranking person to go on trial for Nazi war crimes.

The prosecution argues that, even with no living witnesses who can implicate Demjanjuk in specific acts of brutality or murder, just being a guard at a death camp means he was involved in the Nazis' machinery of destruction.

Before that, however, the prosecution must prove that Demjanjuk, who is being tried in Munich because he lived in the area briefly after the war, really did serve at the camp.

Demjanjuk maintains he was never at Sobibor and questions the authenticity of one of the main pieces of evidence - an SS identity card that prosecutors say features a photo of a young, round-faced Demjanjuk and that says he worked at the death camp.

Some of the most damning evidence comes from statements made by Ignat Danilchenko, a now-deceased Ukrainian who once served in the Soviet Army and was exiled to Siberia following World War II for helping the Nazis.

In 1979, he told the Soviet KGB that he served with the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk at Sobibor and that Demjanjuk 'like all guards in the camp, participated in the mass killing of Jews.'

But there are inconsistencies in the Danilchenko statements, and the defence questions their validity.
Demjanjuk settled in Ohio in the late 1940s, but was later stripped of his citizenship for lying about his association with the Nazis.

In 1977 Demjanjuk was accused of being 'Ivan the Terrible', a sadistic guard at Treblinka death camp and extradited to Israel in 1986.

He was sentenced to death in 1988 but his conviction was overturned five years later when new evidence suggested another man was Ivan.

During that trial, however, the ID card emerged that allegedly placed him at Sobibor. He returned to the US, where authorities began fresh investigations.

Clue: John Demjanjuk's alleged SS card
Clue: John Demjanjuk's alleged SS card 

'It is an opportunity to demonstrate what inhuman behaviour the Nazi regime executed and to respect my family's memory,' said David van Huiden, a Dutch co-plaintiff whose parents and 18-year-old sister were gassed at Sobibor.

'He should get the heaviest available punishment according to German law.'

The Wiesenthal Center, which says Demjanjuk pushed men, women and children into gas chambers, says the trial sends a message that justice can be done even after decades.

'John Demjanjuk has lived a largely undisturbed life. He has been with his family, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, something his victims didn't have the chance to do,' said Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean of the Center in Los Angeles.

'Do we have compassion? No, not at all. He'll be in court where he belongs.'

Many Germans, keen to draw a line under the Nazi past and forge a new role for their country, are resigned to the spectacle of the trial which has underscored Germany's patchy record on bringing its Nazi war criminals to justice.

The Institute for Contemporary History in Munich says West Germany has seen only about 6,600 convictions. About two thirds of those individuals got sentences of less than two years in jail. There are no reliable figures for Communist East Germany.

'There have been many investigations but if you look at the dimensions of the crimes, the results are unsatisfactory,' said Andreas Eichmueller, a Nazi war crime expert at the Institute.

While acknowledging he was at other camps, Demjanjuk has denied he was in Sobibor, which prosecutors say was run by 20-30 SS members and 100-150 former Soviet prisoners of war.

In the gas chambers, Jews died within 30 minutes of a toxic mix of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, say prosecutors who argue Demjanjuk was at Sobibor for about six months in 1943.

Experts say the trial's most interesting aspect is whether prosecutors can prove Demjanjuk was party to specific crimes.

'The court will enter new ground if it convicts him just because he was there. Usually there has to be proof of a concrete crime,' said Eichmueller.

'The prosecutors seem to be saying purely because he was in an extermination camp, he was involved in murder. That's different from proving an actual crime,' added Eichmueller.

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