Nazi camp guard Demjanjuk to go on trial in Germany
John Demjanjuk suffers from bouts of mental absence and will enter court in a wheelchair today to fight charges of helping to kill 27,900 Jews in the Holocaust, the 89-year-old's lawyer said.
His victims' families insist he must face justice.
In what is set to be Germany's last big Nazi-era war crimes trial, all eyes will be on the Ukrainian-born former U.S. auto worker who fought in the Red Army before being captured by the Nazis and recruited as a concentration camp guard.
German state prosecutors believe Demjanjuk, who was top of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted war criminals, assisted in murders at Sobibor extermination camp in Poland where at least 250,000 Jews were murdered.
Mr Demjanjuk, extradited in May from the United States after months of legal wrangling, denies involvement in the Holocaust.
"His physical condition alters by the day, even by the hour. He is an old man suffering from a range of ailments," said Mr Demjanjuk's lawyer, Guenther Maull, told Reuters.
"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," he said, adding Mr Demjanjuk would attend the trial in a wheelchair and address the court in Ukrainian.
Despite protestations from his family, medics have deemed Mr Demjanjuk fit for trial but hearings, in Munich, will be limited to two 90-minute sessions per day due to his frail condition.
The trial is due to last until May and Mr Demjanjuk could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"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," he said.
The Wiesenthal Centre, which says Mr 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 Centre 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.
Significant Nazi trials
The Nuremberg trials
• Between October 1945 and Oct. 1946 an International Military Tribunal tried 22 of the most infamous major Nazi figures in proceedings that came to be known as the Nuremberg trials. Twelve defendants were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, and the rest were sentenced to jail.
• From December 1946 to April 1949, these courts tried and convicted a further 177 Nazis in 12 trials - known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
• Former Nazi major Karl Hass, who died in 2004, and ex-SS Captain Erich Priebke were convicted of participating in the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves. The massacre took place on March 24, 1944, and is regarded as one of the most serious war crimes committed in Italy. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment.
• Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo police chief in Lyon in World War Two, was extradited to France from his postwar hiding place in Bolivia in 1983 to become the most important former Nazi officer to face his victims in a French court.
• The "Butcher of Lyon" was accused of ordering the execution of thousands of Jews and resistance fighters, and deporting thousands more, including 44 Jewish children seized near Lyon, to death camps.
• Sentenced to life imprisonment after the two-month trial, he died of cancer in a Lyon hospital four years later in 1991.
• Maurice Papon was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1998 for complicity in crimes against humanity. He was tried for his role in organising the transport of 1,560 Jews to a transit camp on the way to Auschwitz concentration camp.
• He fled to Switzerland while appealing against his sentence but was arrested by Swiss police and handed over to the French authorities.
• He was jailed in 1999 but released in Sept. 2002 because of poor health. He died in 2007. Papon protested his innocence to the end but failed in his bid for a retrial.
The Eichmann trial:
• Adolf Eichmann was nicknamed the "technician of death" for drawing up and coordinating schedules and logistics plans that made Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" - the genocide of six million Jews - possible.
• He escaped from Germany after World War Two living in Argentina until 1960 when he was found by Israeli Intelligence and smuggled to Israel to face trial.
• Mr Eichmann was sentenced to death in Dec. 1961 after a lengthy trial for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. He was hanged in May 1962. He remains the only person ever to have been executed in Israel.
• Born on April 3, 1920, in Kiev, Ukraine, John Demjanjuk said he was drafted into the Russian army in 1941, became a German prisoner of war a year later and served at German prison camps until 1944. He emigrated to the United States in 1951 and became a naturalized citizen in 1958.
• He was stripped of his US citizenship in 1981 and extradited to Israel, where he was sentenced to death in 1988 after Holocaust survivors said he was the notorious guard "Ivan the Terrible" at Treblinka where 870,000 people died.
• The Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence in 1993 and freed him after newly-released records from the former Soviet Union showed another man, Ivan Marchenko, was probably the Treblinka guard.
• He returned to his home near Cleveland in 1993 and, in 1998, the United States restored his citizenship. But the US Justice Department the following year refiled its case against him, arguing he had worked for the Nazis as a guard at three other death camps and had hidden the facts when he emigrated.
• A federal judge rescinded his citizenship in 2002 and he was ordered to be deported in 2005. He fought deportation for years in a number of courts but Germany finally issued an arrest warrant charging him with complicity in the death of 27,900 Jews and requested his deportation.
• Germany's Constitutional Court turned down an appeal last month from Mr Demjanjuk, clearing the way for a new trial to start. He was deported from the United States last May and has been in jail near Munich ever since.
• In July, the high court had turned down another appeal by Demjanjuk that his deportation from the US infringed his basic rights.
• The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has said Mr Demjanjuk pushed men, women and children into gas chambers at the Sobibor death camp in what is now Poland. Mr Demjanjuk has denied any role in the Holocaust and his family has argued he is too frail to stand trial.