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Convicted war criminal John Demjanjuk has died at the age of 91. Demjanjuk was tried and convicted in Munich last year for serving as a Nazi death camp guard during the Second World War. The Ukranian-born Demjanjuk emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. He was first accused of war crimes more than three decades ago.
From Cleveland, reporter David Barnett has our story.
DAVID BARNETT, BYLINE: It's 1986 and the cameras are focused on the man in the back of an Israeli prisoner transport vehicle. The newspapers have labeled him as Ivan the Terrible. He leans towards the white wire mesh screen that separates him from the reporters to argue otherwise.
JOHN DEMJANJUK: I'm not the Ivan the Terrible. I'm a good man.
BARNETT: John Demjanjuk spent the last third of his life denying charges that he was a Nazi war criminal. Until the mid-1970s, the Ukrainian immigrant had lived a quiet life in suburban Cleveland. Then came accusations from several Holocaust survivors that he was a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland during World War II.
MARVIN HIER: The issue is very simple: John Demjanjuk definitely was a death camp guard.
BARNETT: Marvin Hier is founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group. He has little patience for those who questioned why an octogenarian was put on trial for alleged crimes that occurred 65 years ago.
HIER: He lived to a full, ripe old age to enjoy his children and grandchildren. He attended their birthdays, their wedding celebrations. None of his victims had that privilege; they went directly to the gas chambers.
BARNETT: John Demjanjuk was tried and convicted in Israel on war crimes charges in 1988. He was sentenced to death by hanging. Demjanjuk attorney John Gill says his client just wasn't the man they thought he was.
JOHN GILL: When you were in the trial, you could see that the focus was the fact that it was just a horrendous, horrendous killing of people, and therefore there had to be a punishment for it. And the trouble is that it was the wrong person.
BARNETT: But before his death sentence could be carried out, John Demjanjuk won a reprieve, thanks largely to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Old war records were released that indicated someone else had been Ivan the Terrible. War crimes scholar Michael Scharf says this revelation led the Israeli Supreme Court to reverse Demjanjuk's conviction in 1993, sending him back home to Cleveland.
MICHAEL SCHARF: So the Soviet Union actually ended up saving his life from the death penalty. But those same documents suggested that he was, in fact, a guard.
BARNETT: At a different Nazi death camp in the Polish village of Sobibor, near the Ukrainian border. During the four months in 1943 that Demjanjuk is said to have been stationed at Sobibor, nearly 28,000 people were killed. Based on the new evidence, in 2009, federal officials deported Demjanjuk for a second trial, this time in Germany.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Demjanjuk was wheeled into the Munich courtroom. He appeared listless with his eyes closed.
BARNETT: Questions about the real John Demjanjuk remained until the end. Critics claimed Demjanjuk was acting the part of a sick, feeble old man to gain sympathy. His supporters countered that the Munich proceedings were a show trial that the Germans put on to assuage a national sense of collective guilt.
Legal scholar Michael Scharf says the John Demjanjuk case was probably the last major Nazi war crimes trial. And Scharf, while he doesn't doubt his guilt, has some sympathy for the man at the center of it all.
SCHARF: I think Demjanjuk is a tragic figure. You know, I think that he was maybe recruited involuntarily, fell into a situation that was not his choice, got involved with horrible things. And then spent the rest of his life as a model citizen trying to atone for that. But at the end of the day, justice caught up with him.
BARNETT: For National Public Radio, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.
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