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State of Israel v. Ivan (John) Demjanjuk

Court Supreme Court of Israel, Israel
Case number 347/88
Decision title Verdict
Decision date 29 July 1993
  • State of Israel
  • Ivan (John) Demjanjuk
Categories Crimes against humanity, War crimes
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The Nazis' widespread extermination of the Jewish population during World War II resulted in the loss of millions of lives. It was carried out primarily in concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of individuals were lead to the “showers” - gas chambers where they would be suffocated through breathing in gas. In the Treblinka camp in Poland, a Ukrainian guard nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” was responsible for the operation of the motor to produce the gas and for various abuses perpetrated against the individuals in those camps including severe beatings with bayonets, pipes, whips and swords.

John Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian national who had retired in the United States from his career as a car-worker. He was extradited by the United States to stand trial in Israel when evidence came to light identifying him as Ivan the Terrible. He was convicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against persecuted persons and sentenced to death. On appeal, however, new evidence was introduced that cast a doubt on the identity of Ivan the Terrible. The Supreme Court of Israel found that there was reasonable doubt that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible and could not therefore be convicted of the crimes with which he was charged at Treblinka. However, the Supreme Court did state that the evidence did identify Demjanjuk as a member of the SS and a guard at other concentration camps but, since he was not charged with crimes committed in camps other than Treblinka, he had to be acquitted. 

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Procedural history

Demjanjuk was a former car-worker from Ukraine who immigrated to the United States in 1952, becoming a US citizen in 1958.

On 23 June 1981, the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship on the grounds that he was found to have lied in his immigration application, in particular that he had misrepresented his place of residence from 1937 until 1948 and did not reveal that he had worked for the SS at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland from 1942.

On 6 December 1982, deportation proceedings were commenced against Demjanjuk.

On 18 October 1983, the State of Israel issued an arrest warrant for Demjanjuk for crimes of murdering Jews, punishable under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law. To this end, on 31 October 1983, Israel filed with the United States Department of State a request for the extradition of Demjanjuk pursuant to the 1963 Convention on Extradition between the Government of Israel and the Government of the United States (Extradition Treaty).

On 15 April 1985, the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio confirmed that the charges against Demjanjuk are extraditable offenses within the meaning of the Extradition Treaty. On 31 October 1985, this decision was upheld on appeal by the United States Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit).

Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel in 1986 to stand trial. On 18 April 1988, the District Court of Jerusalem convicted Demjanjuk of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against persecuted people. He was sentenced to death. 

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Related developments

Demjanjuk returned to Ohio in September 1993.

On 17 November 1993, the United States Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) ruled that prosecutors had suppressed exculpatory evidence concerning his identity and rescinded the previous extradition order.

On 20 February 1998, Federal District Court Judge Matia ruled that Demjanjuk’s US citizenship could be restored.

On 19 May 1999, the United States Department of Justice filed a new civil complaint against Demjanjuk alleging that he had served as a guard at the Sobibor and Majdanek concentration camps in Poland and the Flossenburg camp in Germany. He was additionally accused of being a member of an SS unit that captured nearly 2 million Jews in Poland.

On 30 April 2004, the Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship once again on the grounds that the Justice Department had presented clear, unequivocal evidence that Demjanjuk served in the Nazi death camps. Demjanjuk’s appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected on X November 2004.

On 28 December 2005, the Immigration Judge ordered that Demjanjuk should be deported to Germany, Poland or the Ukraine. Demjanjuk exhausted all his appeals and the deportation order was rendered final by the Supreme Court’s denial of review in May 2007.

On 9 December 2008, the German Federal Court of Justice ruled that the Munich court may try Demjanjuk if charges are brought by the State’s Prosecutor’s Office (see ‘Court: Ivan the Terrible Can be Tried in Germany’, The Local, 11 December 2008).

On 2 April 2009, the German Foreign Ministry announced that Demjanjuk is to be transferred to Germany to start trial proceedings on 30 November 2009 (see AP, ‘John Demjanjuk’s Trial in Germany to Start Nov. 30’, Cleveland Blog, 6 October 2009).

On 14 April 2009, immigration agents removed Demjanjuk from his home in preparation for deportation. That same day, the Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) stayed Demjanjuk’s deportation order. This order was lifted on 1 May 2009.

On 11 May 2009, Demjanjuk was deported to Germany.

On 30 November 2009, the trial against Demjanjuk commenced in Munich. Demjanjuk was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27 900 Jews on 12 May 2011 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Pending appeal, he was released from custody (see ‘Court Finds Nazi Guard Guilty of Holocaust Deaths’,, 12 May 2011).

Demjanjuk died 17 March 2012. His conviction was invalidated upon his death because the German Appellate Court had not yet heard the appeal. According to German law, no conviction stands until all appeal rights have been exhausted (see also ‘Former Nazi Guard Demjanjuk Dies in Germany Aged 91’, Reuters, 17 March 2012).

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Legally relevant facts

In furtherance of the Nazi’s policy of extermination against Jewish persons, concentration camps were set up. The Treblinka camp in Poland acted in cooperation with the German nazi Command to promote the extermination process (District Court Verdict, p. 170).

Mass extermination occurred at the camp through operation of gas chambers. A crew of three was allowed to the operation of supplying the gas and operating the large motor which produced the carbon monoxide. Victims would be forciby pressed and crowded into these chambers, upon which time the motor would be operated and the individuals inside would suffocate as a result of their inhalation of the gas (District Court Verdict, p. 171).

A guard, nicknamed Ivan the Terrible, was responsible for the supply of the gas and the operation of the motor (District Court Verdict, p. 171). Prior to this, he would take up position along the path by which the victims were lead to the chambers and he would prod them to enter more speedily by striking them with daggers, iron bars or whips (District Court Verdict,  p. 172).

Those not yet destined for the chamber were compelled to carry corpses out of the chsambers so room could be made for new individuals (District Court Verdict, p. 173). In carrying out this role, individuals were beaten with daggers, bayonets and pipes (District Court Verdict, p. 174).

Punishments were severe for individuals caught misbehaving. Escaped prisoners that were found and returned were beaten and hung as examples (District Court Verdict, p. 176), and stealing food resulted in whipping (District Court Verdict, p. 179).

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Core legal questions

Did the Appellant’s trial for crimes under the Nazi Punishment Law violate the principle of speciality as his extradition was for charges of murder?

How is the standard of reasonable doubt to be interpreted?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Sections 17 and 24 of the Extradition Law of 1954.
  • Sections 1 and 2 of the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law.

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Court's holding and analysis

The principle of speciality provides that an extradited person may not be tried in the country requesting the extradition for offenses other than those for which the extradition was requested and granted, unless the extraditing country or the wanted person has consented otherwise. The Supreme Court held that the principle of specialty does not impose any limitation on the particulars of the charge so long as it encompasses only the offence for which extradition was granted. Thus the principle had not been violated in the appellant’s case as the American courts were aware of the crimes for which the appellant would be tried, the relevant sections of the Israeli statute which would be invoked and they recognised that the particular acts of murder for which the appellant would be tried would be determined by Israeli law.

The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, that is, proof need not reach certainty but it must carry a high degree of probability. The evidence should be consistent but, if there were contradictions, the Court was entitled to decide what evidence it was prepared to accept.

Upon consideration of the evidence, the Court concluded that the Appellant was indeed a member of the Trawniki Unit, a training camp for Russian prisoners of war who had volunteered to act as guards in assisting the Germans to carry out the extermination of Jews. However, additional evidence referred multiple times to an Ivan Marchenko, another Ukrainian member of the Trawniki Unit, who was identified as the man responsible for the operation of the gas chambers at Treblinka. The Supreme Court therefore concluded that there was a reasonable possibility that the Appellant was not Ivan the Terrible. He was acquitted as the charges against him as the indictment alleged his involvement only at Treblinka. 

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials

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