War crimes suspect in court

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: An elderly Ukrainian-American man appeared in court today in Munich. It was the first day of what is likely to be Germany's last big Nazi-era trial. John Demjanjuk is alleged to have been part of the Nazi drive to exterminate Europe's Jews. He denies the charges. The BBC's Steve Rosenberg reports from Munich.

STEVE ROSENBERG: He's accused of mass murder, but today John Demjanjuk couldn't even walk into the courtroom. Groaning, his eyes tightly shut, his body covered in a blue blanket, 89-year-old John Demjanjuk was wheeled into his trial. As photographers crowded around the wheelchair it felt more like a freak show than a Nazi war crimes trial. And watching him in the gallery, in stunned silence, the relatives of some of the 27,900 victims Mr. Demjanjuk allegedly herded into the gas chambers of Sobibor. His defense team says he's too old and too ill to be prosecuted. The court believes that John Demjanjuk is fit enough to stand trial. Watching the proceedings today was Efraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Well, listen, I just hope that the continuation will not be like the first day, when the whole world will learn more details about Demjanjuk's health than about the crimes at Sobibor. So this is of course the danger. This is the problem and listen, this is the challenge really of the judge and the challenge to the court, to make sure that this trial doesn't get derailed.

ROSENBERG: John Demjanjuk is accused of being a guard in Sobibor, but what was interesting about this first day of his trial was that his defense didn't deny that. Their argument was that it was unjust to prosecute someone who only followed orders, when some of the principal perpetrators of the death camp, who'd issued those orders, had been tried and acquitted by German courts after the war.

WERMAN: The BBC's Steve Rosenberg filed that report from Munich.