Berlin: Prosecutors have reopened hundreds of dormant investigations of former Nazi death camp guards and others who might now be charged under a new precedent set by the conviction of retired U.S. autoworker John Demjanjuk, reports said on Wednesday.
Given the advanced age of all of the suspects — the youngest are in their 80s — the head of the German prosecutors` office dedicated to investigating Nazi war crimes said that authorities are not even waiting until the Demjanjuk appeals process is over.
"We don`t want to wait too long, so we`ve already begun our investigations," prosecutor Kurt Schrimm said.
Meantime, the Simon Wiesenthal Center`s top Nazi-hunter, Efraim Zuroff, said he would launch a new campaign in the next two months — a successor to his Operation Last Chance — to track down the remaining Nazi war criminals.
He said the Demjanjuk conviction has opened the door to prosecutions that he had never thought possible in the past.
"It could be a very interesting final chapter," he said by telephone from Jerusalem. "This has tremendous implications even at this late date."
Demjanjuk, now 91, was deported from the U.S. to Germany in 2009 to stand trial. He was convicted in May of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
It was the first time prosecutors were able to convict someone in a Nazi-era case without direct evidence that the suspect participated in a specific killing.
In bringing Demjanjuk to trial, Munich prosecutors argued that if they could prove that he was a guard at a camp like Sobibor — established for the sole purpose of extermination — it was enough to convict him of accessory to murder as part of the Nazi`s machinery of destruction.
After 18 months of testimony, a Munich court agreed and found Demjanjuk guilty, sentencing him to five years in prison. Demjanjuk, who denies ever having served as a guard, is currently free and living in southern Germany as he waits for his appeal to be heard.
Schrimm said his office is now again going over all of its files to see if others may fit into the same category as Demjanjuk.
He could not give an exact figure, but said there were probably "under 1,000" possible suspects who could still be alive and prosecuted, living both in Germany and abroad. He would not give any names.
"We have to check everything — from the people who we were aware of in camps like Sobibor ... or also in the Einsatzgruppen," he said, referring to the death squads responsible for mass killings, particularly early in the war before the death camps were established.
It has not yet been tested in court whether the Demjanjuk precedent could be extended to guards of Nazi camps where thousands died but whose sole purpose was not necessarily murder.
Murder and related offenses are the only charges that aren`t subject to a statute of limitations in Germany.
Even the narrowest scenario — looking at the guards of the four death camps used only for killings: Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Treblinka — plus those involved in the Einsatzgruppen could lead to scores more prosecutions, Zuroff said.
"We`re talking about an estimated 4,000 people, to round it off," he said. "Even if only 2 percent of those people are alive, we`re talking 80 people — and let`s assume half of them are not medically fit to be brought to justice — that leaves us with 40 people, so there is incredible potential."
Immediately after the war, top Nazis such as Hermann Goering were convicted at war-crimes trials run by the Allied powers, while investigations of the lower ranks eventually fell to German courts.
But there was little political will to aggressively pursue the prosecutions, and many of the trials ended with short sentences, or acquittal, of suspects in greater positions of responsibility than Demjanjuk allegedly had.