John Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian national born in the village of Dub Macharenzi on April 3, 1920. He was a tractor driver on the collective farm of his native village. In 1940, the Red Army conscripted Demjanjuk. After the Nazi invasion, he served in the artillery in the Crimea until being captured by the Germans in May 1942. After the war ended he immigrated to the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1952. Little is known about the intervening ten years of his life.
In 1977 Demjanjuk was accused of being "Ivan the Terrible," a Nazi war criminal from the infamous Treblinka death camp. It was alleged that he ran the gas chamber there, and that he earned his nickname as a result of his brutal treatment of the camp's inmates. The accusation triggered a court action, filed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, to strip Demjanjuk of his U.S. citizenship. He lost this court case and his citizenship in 1981. The United States then faced two options: Demjanjuk could be deported to the Ukraine, or he could be extradited to Israel, which wanted to put him on trial. The United States chose the second option, and, in 1987, Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel to face criminal prosecution for the crime of genocide. Israel was chosen as the venue for the trial because its laws permit prosecution of Nazi war criminals on the basis of universal jurisdiction.
Demjanjuk's trial commenced on November 26, 1986. He was found guilty of committing genocide by the District Court of Jerusalem on April 18, 1988, and was sentenced to death on April 25. While his lawyers appealed the court's decision, new evidence surfaced that cast doubt on the original verdict. Newly discovered documents, primarily recovered from the archives of the former Soviet Union, supported the defense's claim that "Ivan the Terrible" was not Ivan Demjanjuk after all, but rather referred to a man named Ivan Marchenko. Consequently the Israeli Supreme Court granted an appeal. As the identification of Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible" was no longer proved beyond reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court acquitted him. The Attorney General of Israel "refused to proceed with new charges, despite compelling evidence that Demjanjuk had in fact served as a guard in the Trawniki camp" (Schabas, 2000, p. 388).
The court held that Demjanjuk did not have "a reasonable opportunity to defend himself against the new charge" (Kremnitzer, 1996, p. 327), which had not been the focus of the original trial in the lower court. Further, U.S. extradition laws would not permit Demjanjuk to be prosecuted on charges that had not been cited in the original extradition order. Even the High Court of Justice of Israel declined to intervene in favor of a new trial.
Some observers remain very critical of the Demjanjuk trial. Geoffrey Robertson wrote: "The trial stands not only as a warning of the unreliability of eye-witness evidence and of justice miscarrying when it is too long delayed, but more importantly of the danger that some states will exploit universal jurisdiction for political ends" (Robertson, 1999, p. 233). The establishment of the International Criminal Court could ensure that there is less partisanship in the future, but it must be recalled that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over alleged offenses that occurred before its establishment in 2002.
Heath, John William (1999). "Journey over 'Strange Ground': From Demjanjuk to the International Criminal Court Regime." Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 13:393–407.
Kremnitzer, Mordechai (1996). "The Demjanjuk Case." In War Crimes in International Law, ed. Y. Dinstan and M. Tabory. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Lemkin, Raphael (1944). Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Robertson, Geoffrey (1999). Crimes Against Humanity. London: Penguin Press.
Schabas, William A. (2000). Genocide in International Law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.