Convicted Nazi Criminal Demjanjuk Deemed Innocent in Germany Over Technicality

Last May, John Demjanjuk convicted in Germany of 28,060 counts of being accessory to murder at Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland, and sentenced to five years in prison; Demjanjuk died on Saturday.

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Convicted war criminal John Demjanjuk, who died in Germany on Saturday, is deemed innocent there, despite being convicted last year of killings in a Nazi death camp.

Munich state court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said this week that under German law, Demjanjuk is "still technically presumed innocent," because he died before his final appeal could be heard, and "a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

John Demjanjuk leaves the court room in Munich during his trial, May 2011. Credit: AP

Asked by Haaretz if that means there is no record of Demjanjuk's conviction, Noetzel replied, "Yes, it means Mr. Demjanjuk has no criminal record."

Since Demjanjuk's conviction cannot be validated legally, due to his death, the conviction remains "merely as an historic fact," Noetzel said.

Last May, Demjanjuk was convicted in Germany of 28,060 counts of being an accessory to murder at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed to a higher court and was allowed to wait for the court's verdict on his appeal in a nursing home in south Germany. That is where he died this week.

Demjanjuk's German lawyer, Dr. Ulrich Busch, told Haaretz that the Munich court published the statement regarding his client's presumed innocence at his demand.

"After my client's death, a false statement was distributed to the effect that Mr. Demjanjuk died as a convicted war criminal," Busch told Haaretz in an exchange of e-mails. "The German and international media accepted this version and sullied my client, portraying him as one who led 28,000 people to the gas chambers."

Busch said he demanded the legal authorities in Germany issue a clarification saying his client "died innocent and without conviction," and that his conviction by a lower court "is invalid.

"The statement issued now clears my client's name and restores his dignity," he said.

"It's a great consolation to his family, which is grieving over the loss of a husband and father, who died alone in far away Germany," Busch added.

He described Ukraine-born Demjanjuk's conviction as a "legal scandal."

"I was and still am convinced the Supreme Court would have granted his appeal and acquitted him this year, had he not died before the procedure ended," he said.

Prof. Cornelius Nestler, who represented the families of Demjanjuk's victims, told Haaretz on Thursday: "He is not innocent. Only technically-legally. Unofficially, he is presumed innocent."

"Why is this important?" Nestler asked. "On the one hand he's presumed innocent, on the other, there's the conviction, which established that he served as a wachman [guard] in Sobibor and therefore was accessory to murder."

Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said the statement about Demjanjuk's "presumed innocence" was "completely wacky."

Zuroff said a funeral for Demjanjuk in his adopted hometown in the United States would turn into a spectacle and a demonstration of support for him.

The testimonies presented by the prosecutors at Demjanjuk's trial proved he had served as a Nazi guard in Sobibor for several months in 1943. Since tens of thousands of people had been murdered there during that time, he was convicted of being accessory to murder, without testimony of his direct personal involvement in the murders.

His family in Ohio plans to fly Demjanjuk's body to the United States for burial.

Even though Demjanjuk had been stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 2004 and deported, there is no prohibition against returning the body to the country, the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland said.