CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court halted the deportation of accused Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk on Tuesday and he was freed from custody just hours after immigration agents carried him out of his Ohio home to send him to Germany for trial.
“He went through a lot of pain today in the transportation,” John Demjanjuk Jr. said of his 89-year-old father.
“But he’s nevertheless relieved to be home rather than on a plane to Germany, and we’re very grateful that the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sees the merit in our appeal to have this reviewed and this inhumane action put to a stop.”
Earlier, agents descended on his suburban home, brought in a doctor and, after a check, loaded the retired auto worker into a van in his wheelchair as his weeping wife stood by. A priest was present briefly before he was escorted out.
He had been scheduled to be flown immediately to Munich, where he faces charges in the deaths of 29,000 Jews but instead was taken to a federal building in downtown Cleveland.
A Justice Department spokesman said it “will continue to litigate this matter in court.”
Prosecutors in Germany accuse him of being an accessory in 1943 killings at Sobibor death camp, where he is alleged to have personally led Jews to the gas chambers at the camp in Polish territory then occupied by Nazi Germany.
John Demjanjuk Jr. drove four hours to Cincinnati to deliver an 11th-hour appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that deporting his ailing father to Germany amounted to torture and that the trip alone might kill him.
Two judges from the federal appeals court in Cincinnati ordered the deportation stopped while it weighed whether Demjanjuk deserved another hearing and prosecutors’ response that the legal case was at an end.
Ed Nishnic, Demjanjuk’s former son-in-law, said the family had been told he was being taken initially to a federal building in Cleveland.
“He understood he was being taken against his will ... it’s disappointing to watch a human being treated like that,” he said, adding that the agents used a van and not an ambulance.
The events were the latest and perhaps last phase of a story played out on three continents over nearly 70 years.
The Ukraine native was sentenced to death in Israel in 1988 as the sadistic guard “Ivan the Terrible” at Treblinka where 870,000 died. Israel’s highest court later ruled that he was not “Ivan” of Treblinka.
After spending years in an Israeli prison, he returned to his home near Cleveland in 1993 and his citizenship was restored in 1998. At the time, the appeals court in Cincinnati reprimanded the Justice Department for concealing evidence that would have exonerated him in the Ivan case.
U.S. Justice Department Nazi hunters reopened the case, and a U.S. court convicted him in 2002 of working at three other camps and he was stripped of his citizenship a second time.
Germany’s chief Nazi war crimes investigator, Kurt Schrimm, urged Demjanjuk be prosecuted in Munich, where Demjanjuk lived before he emigrated. Prosecutors there issued an arrest warrant in March and asked the United States to deport him.
Demjanjuk was scheduled to be deported on April 5 but won a stay, saying he had spinal problems, kidney failure and anaemia, was very weak and needed help to stand up. The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals last week revoked the stay.
Demjanjuk has denied any role in the Holocaust. He said he was drafted into the Russian army in 1941, became a German prisoner of war a year later and served at German prison camps until 1944. (Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; Written by Michael Conlon and Andrew Stern; editing by Doina Chiacu)