MUNICH (CBS/AP) - Retired Ohio auto worker John Demjanjuk, 89, has spent over 30 years battling a variety of charges for Nazi-era war crimes. Now he faces fresh allegations -- 27,900 counts of acting as an accessory to murder -- one for every person who died at the Nazi death camp where he is accused of serving as a guard.
Prosecutors say Demjanjuk was a guard at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. Demkjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, says he was a soldier in the Russian Red Army who spent World War II as a prisoner of war and never harmed anyone.
The charges by prosecutors at a Munich state court are one of the final steps before a possible autumn trial. Charges of accessory to murder carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison in Germany.
Demjanjuk and his family have argued that he is in poor health. Photos taken in April showed him wincing in pain as immigration agents removed him from his home in Seven Hills, in suburban Cincinnati, where he had been living since 1993.
German doctors cleared the way for formal charges this month when they declared that Demjanjuk was fit to stand trial so long as court hearings do not exceed two 90-minute sessions per day.
The defendant's son, John Demjanjuk Jr., described the charges as "a farce" in an e-mail to The Associated Press, writing that, "as long as my father remains alive, we will defend his innocence as he has never hurt anyone anywhere." Demjanjuk's lawyer, Guenther Maull, said he had no immediate comment because had not yet seen the charges.
Nazi-era documents given to German prosecutors by U.S. authorities include a photo ID identifying Demjanjuk as a guard at Sobibor and saying he was trained at an SS facility for Nazi guards at Trawniki, Poland. U.S. and German experts have declared the ID genuine.
"This is obviously an important step forward," Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said by telephone from Jerusalem. "The effort to bring Demjanjuk to justice sends a very powerful message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrator."
Demjanjuk gained U.S. citizenship in 1958. The U.S. Justice Department moved to revoke the citizenship in 1977, alleging he hid his past as a Nazi death camp guard, and it was revoked in 1981.
Demjanjuk was deported to Israel and tried on accusations that he was the notorious "Ivan the Terrible" at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. He was found guilty in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity but the conviction was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
That decision came after Israel won access to Soviet archives, which had depositions given after the war by 37 Treblinka guards and forced laborers who said "Ivan" was a different Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko.
Demjanjuk's U.S. citizenship was restored in 1998. A U.S. judge revoked it again in 2002 based on fresh Justice Department evidence showing he concealed his service at Sobibor and other Nazi-run death and forced-labor camps from immigration officials.
A U.S. immigration judge ruled in 2005 he could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine. Munich prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him in March.
They accused him in that warrant of being an accessory to murder in 29,000 cases, representing the number of people who arrived there while he was alleged to be a camp guard based on his photo ID. However, that number was reduced – to 27, 900 -- because, of the people transported to Sobibor, "many did not survive the journey," said Anton Winkler, a spokesman for Munich prosecutors.