UNLESS the Israeli Supreme Court heeds his appeal and overturns his death sentence, retired Cleveland autoworker and convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk will hang sometime this year for the grisly crimes committed at Treblinka by the notorious "Ivan the Terrible."
Unless Israel and the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) justify their handling of the Demjanjuk case, Israel's Supreme Court should overturn that death sentence.
The central question in the Demjanjuk case is that of identity. No one doubts that the so-called Ivan the Terrible, a Treblinka guard, committed some of the most savage crimes of the war, including cutting flesh from live human beings. The question is, are Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible the same man? The Israeli prosecutors say yes, but their case is tenuous at best.
Their shaky case rests largely on a Soviet-supplied SS identification card of questionable authenticity which the Soviets and the Israelis claim was Demjanjuk's. The case also rests on five Treblinka survivors who testified at Demjanjuk's trial that he is Ivan.
THE Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, drafted into the Soviet army, was captured in May 1942 by the Germans, who initially sent him to a detainment camp in Chelm, Poland.
Afterwards, Demjanjuk maintains, the Germans transferred him to the anti-Stalinist Ukrainian National Liberation Army. He says that he then concealed his military record in 1951 so he could enter the U.S. He settled in Ohio, where he worked in a Ford plant, raised a family and became an American citizen. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1986, and sent to Israel for trial.
Israel maintains that after Chelma, the Germans transferred Demjanjuk to Trawniki--an SS center for training concentration camp guards--and later to Treblinka where he was to become known as Ivan.
Which story do we believe? Is Demjanjuk Treblinka's Ivan?
NO documents remain from Treblinka. In addition, several Treblinka escapees have insistently claimed that Ivan was one of the three guards killed in an unsuccessful August 1943 uprising at the camp.
Furthermore, while five survivors testified that Demjanjuk and Ivan are the same man, more than a dozen others who knew Ivan were unable to positively identify Demjanjuk.
Despite this room for reasonable doubt, the Israeli tribunal found Demjanjuk guilty of the war crimes attributed to Ivan and passed a sentence--death by hanging--to be carried out sometime in 1989.
Demjanjuk has appealed the decision. Certain to be a key part of his May 4 appeal is evidence uncovered by an American lawyer, William Wolf, who claims that the Israeli prosecutors intimidated witnesses, suppressed evidence and possibly acted illegally.
In addition, there have been allegations of improper behavior on the part of the U.S. Justice Department.
For instance, Wolf contacted Richard Glazer, a Treblinka survivor now living in Switzerland, about the Demjanjuk case. Glazer admitted that Israeli authorities had pressured him "to keep his mouth shut" during the Demjanjuk trial. The OSI interviewed Glazer in 1979--well before any Israeli pressure--but has inexplicably refused to release notes from that crucial interview.
Moreover, a certain Ignat Danilchenko, who was interviewed by the Soviets, said that Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor from March 1943 to 1944--the same time the five Israeli witnesses say he was at Treblinka. The OSI has refused to release information from this interview as well.
Demjanjuk's lawyers (one who mysteriously fell to his death from a 15-story building, the other who had acid thrown in his face) complained throughout the trial that the OSI was witholding other key statements from two Treblinka guards widely presumed to have stated that Demjanjuk was not Ivan.
ATTORNEY General Thornburgh, if not President Bush, should see to it that the OSI (which has a reputation for being run as an autonomous satrapy) stop playing bureaucratic games and make available the suppressed information. For their part, the Israeli authorities should allow those whom they have pressured, like Glazer, to come forth and give their story.
Unless both of these things occur, Israel's Supreme Court should grant Demjanjuk's appeal--regardless of how unpopular such a decision might be among Israelis, hundreds of whom crammed the movie-theater-turned-courtroom last May to applaud Demjanjuk's death sentence and rhythmically chant, "Death, death, death...The people of Israel live!"
Unquestionably, Nazi war criminals should be brought to justice. However, while Demjanjuk may be Ivan, after 40 years and a great deal of conflicting testimony there is certainly room for reasonable doubt--enough doubt for Demjanjuk's death sentence to be overturned.
Indeed, if he is hung without the suppressed testimonies and files being brought to light, Demjanjuk may ultimately go down in history not as Ivan the Terrible, but, as Patrick Buchanan puts it, "the victim of a greater miscarriage of justice than Alfred Dreyfus."