Reeling from two major setbacks in its 16-year-old case against John Demjanjuk, the Justice Department Thursday asked a federal judge to reopen the matter and rule once and for all that the retired Cleveland auto worker worked as a Nazi death camp guard and deserved to be stripped of his U.S. citizenship.
Even if he was not the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka death camp, Demjanjuk certainly worked for the Nazis at other concentration camps, government prosecutors said.
“We want there to be no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind that Mr. Demjanjuk served in Nazi death camps and concealed that fact when he applied to become a U.S. citizen,” said Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
“We don’t care whether he goes to the Ukraine or to South America,” said department spokesman John Russell, “but we don’t think he should have a haven here in the United States.”
In the petition filed in Cleveland, government lawyers urged U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti to reaffirm his 1981 order that revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship and led to his deportation.
“In light of the extraordinary public scrutiny” the case received, Demjanjuk and his lawyers should be given “a final opportunity in an American court to refute the evidence of his Nazi involvement,” government lawyers said.
They said that they believe a new hearing will prove that Battisti made the right decision the first time. Virtually unchallenged evidence--including a photo identification card, a German registry of camp guards and eyewitness testimony--proves that Demjanjuk worked at the Trawniki camp, which served as a training facility for Nazi camp guards, government lawyers said.
In a separate brief filed with the U.S. appeals court in Cincinnati, the Justice Department also refuted charges that it had concealed important evidence that could have undercut claims that Demjanjuk was “Ivan the Terrible.”
With its two court filings Thursday, the government is seeking to regain the momentum in a case that took a surprising turn this year.
First, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk’s death sentence in July, saying that it was not convinced beyond all doubt that he was the notorious Treblinka guard known as “Ivan the Terrible.”
Second, a U.S. appeals court panel in Cincinnati ruled in November that Justice Department prosecutors had committed “fraud on the court” by either concealing or not pursuing evidence that could have aided Demjanjuk.
After those two decisions, the 73-year-old Demjanjuk was freed from an Israeli prison and allowed to return to his home in suburban Cleveland. But he remains in legal limbo.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk has maintained that he was captured during World War II and held in a German prison camp. However, since the case against him began in 1977, he has been unable to furnish documents or the names of fellow prisoners who could confirm his story.
Nonetheless, his family members asked Battisti in August to restore Demjanjuk’s U.S. citizenship, arguing that the specter of “Ivan the Terrible” had tainted the original denaturalization proceeding. That claim is pending.
Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles praised the Justice Department for renewing its effort against Demjanjuk.
“Today’s actions . . . will set the record straight that John Demjanjuk is not an innocent victim of a witch hunt, but a Nazi war criminal who violated American law by hiding his criminal past,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center. “We hope (it) will mark the beginning of the final chapter on the long road to justice in this case.”
In recent months, a legal sideshow in the Demjanjuk case has drawn great attention in legal circles. In what appears to be a growing public feud, Chief Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has led a campaign against the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations.
Merritt was reportedly incensed over what he saw as deception in the Demjanjuk case. He appointed Judge Thomas A. Wiseman as special master charged with examining whether the Justice Department office committed fraud in its handling of the Demjanjuk case.
In a 210-page report, Wiseman concluded that the prosecutors acted in good faith. Undeterred, Merritt and two colleagues ruled in November that the government had indeed committed “fraud on the court.”
On Thursday, the Justice Department asked the full appeals court to reverse that judgment and clear the good name of the prosecutors.