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Published: Tuesday, 4/19/2011

Demjanjuk's trial

The long, twisted case of a retired Ohio auto worker who is accused of Nazi war crimes and is on trial in Germany has long raised doubts. Now the saga of John Demjanjuk has taken another troubling turn.

An FBI report, kept secret for 25 years but recently obtained by the Associated Press, expresses skepticism about key evidence against the Ukrainian national who emigrated to the Cleveland area decades ago.

The AP reports that the FBI’s Cleveland field office questioned the authenticity of a Nazi SS identification card supposedly issued to Demjanjuk. The document is crucial to prosecutors’ charges that he was a guard at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland.

In 1985, four years after the former Soviet Union gave U.S. prosecutors material that appeared to implicate Demjanjuk, investigators concluded the evidence was “quite likely fabricated.” Although defense attorneys have repeatedly suggested as much, the FBI report is the first known confirmation that U.S. authorities had similar misgivings. 

Agents who examined the ID card argued that Soviet officials had an interest in faking the documents as part of a campaign to smear anti-communist emigres. Another branch of the Justice Department that headed the Demjanjuk probe rejected that conclusion.

The department’s Office of Special Investigations noted that plenty of Western experts have pronounced the card authentic. Yet at Demjanjuk’s current trial, a document specialist testified that a counterfeiter with the right material could have forged the card.

Demjanjuk, now 90, has faced more than three decades of U.S. hearings, extradition, a death sentence followed by an acquittal in Israel, deportation, and a trial that is nearing its conclusion in Munich.

It remains important, in the interest of the memory of Nazism’s victims and of history, to get at the truth about Demjanjuk’s activities during World War II. But it seems the one constant in his case continues to be doubt.

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