John Demjanjuk ought to be left alone. For the last 32 years, this 89 year old man has been fighting allegations that he was a Nazi collaborator and prison guard. First it was US federal prosecutors. When they couldn’t make it stick, the Israelis had a go. When that didn’t work, the US authorities had another shot. Now he is being sent to Germany.
In 1977, Demjanjuk was accused by the federal authorities of having been a guard at Treblinka, after being identified as “Ivan the Terrible” in a photo during an investigation into someone else. After four years, they eventually could only get him for lying on his naturalisation application, so they stripped him of his citizenship. When he appealed and they couldn’t get rid of him, he was extradited to Israel. Under their Nazi-hunter law, the Israelis have entitled themselves to take anyone from anywhere in the world and put them on trial for their life.
An Israeli special tribunal found him guilty and sentenced him to death. It took seven years, but fortunately the Israeli Supreme Court overturned that in a 400-page ruling. After he was returned to the US, the Court of Appeals ruled that federal prosecutors had deliberately withheld evidence and they gave back his citizenship. A little thing like prosecutorial misconduct that’s not going to stop the Justice Department, so they turned around and made new allegations. It took another five years, but they got him stripped of his citizenship again. This time they tried to deport him to Ukraine, since that’s where he was born. He’s been fighting that since 2005.
Now the Germans have filed 29,000 counts against him for being a guard at Sobibor, a prison camp that closed 66 years ago, run by a regime that ceased to exist 64 years ago, on soil that it occupied illegally, and of which he was not a citizen. The basis of their jurisdiction is that he briefly lived in Munich – not at any time when any offense is alleged to have occured. He just lived there once. He is being deported this week and will be held in prison awaiting trial, unless he is too ill, in which case he will be held in a clinic. It is expected to take several months after his incarceration before his trial begins.
As trial courts seem very willing to convict Demjanjuk, even with prosecutors who have no qualms about doing whatever they have to do to get that conviction, there will no doubt be a lengthy appeal process. He could be well into his 90s before this round of prosecution is resolved, though obviously the chances of him surviving it are slim.
This once again highlights one of the problems with current developments in international law, the over-extension of criminal jurisdiction. Nations feel free to pass legislation saying that even non-citizens can be prosecuted for acts committed outside that country. This has most recently been used by the US to detain people at Guantanamo Bay and by the British to stop sex tourism in Thailand, though it was also used by Spain to arrest Pinochet in Britain for things he did in Chile as president of Chile. The justification is that these are bad people, so it doesn’t matter how you get them, as long as you get them.
The only country that should be trying anyone for anything done at Treblinka or Sobibor is Poland. Both were on Polish soil, both then and now. If the Poles aren’t interested interested in pursuing quadruple jeopardy againt Demjanjuk, the whole thing should be left alone.