When Does Justice Cease to Matter?

By Jay Holmes

This weekend, two seemingly disconnected pieces of news were announced. One informed us that Libya’s former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, was arrested Saturday at an airport in Mauritania. The other was that convicted Sobibor Nazi extermination camp guard John Demjanjuk died in prison in Germany. While the two events might seem to have little connection, I think they are both related to a central issue of civilization.

John Demjanjuk – image from jssnews.com

I first heard the name John Demjanjuk in 1985 when Israel sought his extradition as a war criminal. Survivors of the Nazi holocaust had recognized Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, an infamous prison guard who acted with singular cruelty against Jewish prisoners at Sobibor and Treblinka.

My first reaction to the news at the time was astonishment. I wondered just how actively hateful and cruel one had to be to stand out as a villain amongst Nazi concentration camp guards. My second reaction at the time was one of disgust when I heard media pundits debating whether or not it was “worth it at this point” to pursue a WWII war criminal. I wanted to ask the pundits precisely how many days after the murder of an innocent child does the murder become irrelevant? When does the dead child, or in this case the many thousands of victims of Ivan the Terrible’s brutality, cease to matter? What is the shelf life of justice? What is the sell-by date of morality?

In the Demjanjuk case, Israel was able to present enough evidence to gain Demjanjuk’s extradition. He was tried for the brutal murders of prisoners in 1942 and 1943.

Israel found twenty-two surviving witnesses who identified Demjanjuk as a guard who had sadistically and routinely tortured and murdered prisoners, including young children, for his own personal recreation. One of the witnesses was a fellow death camp guard, who in turn came under scrutiny as a possible war criminal after the trial.

Demjanjuk was convicted, and in 1988, he received a death sentence. In most countries, that would be the end of the story save for the line about his death by hanging or stoning, but Demjanjuk wasn’t convicted in “most countries.” He was convicted in Israel—one of those minority nations that has a workable justice system that isn’t directly ruled by hysteria or a drug mafia.

Since he was in Israel, Demjanjuk was entitled to a legitimate system of appeals. Rather than giving in to the rage they must have felt and rubber stamping his case to expedite his execution, the Israeli appeals court granted time for the defense team (paid for by Israeli tax payers) to prepare for each level of appeal.

In 1993, in what struck me as a remarkable case of restraint and adherence to due process, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk’s conviction for the murders. This was based on the fact that there was some small chance that all twenty-two witnesses might have accidentally confused him with another death camp guard.

At the time, I wondered if any of the SS death camp guards and their Ukrainian volunteers did not deserve execution. I wondered if the small risk of confused identity in this case mattered much.

At the same time, I had to look at the case as proof that, unlike most of the world’s court systems, the Israeli court system had done its absolute best to deliver a just verdict in spite of what must have been the court members’ almost unbearable personal grief.

Although the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling disappointed me, I felt great admiration for their self-restraint and their ability to put their sworn duty above their deep personal feelings. It was an act of tremendous moral courage. It was an example of precisely the moral courage that the Nazis lacked, and that allowed them to perpetrate such a terrible holocaust against millions of Jews, Slavs, Rom, communists, moral objectors, homosexuals, and Catholics.

So did the Israelis then try and convict him of the war crimes committed by his “alter identity”? No. The courts ruled that for one, his extradition was for the specific charges, and that they would honor the strict conditions of the extradition and release him back to the United States.  And for two, a retrial on lesser charges would, under the circumstances of that particular case, violate the principles of double jeopardy as defined by the Israeli legal system. By then, much of the furor over Ivan the Terrible had died down.

In 1988, the US (another one of those few nations with an imperfect but believable court system) restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship. This was based on the fact that evidence that Demjanjuk was the “other” brutal guard was not shared with his defense team in the original extradition case and subsequent appeals. Because he might have been a different mass murderer instead of the one he was originally accused of being, he got off. But not completely.

In 1999, Demjanjuk faced federal charges that he was a member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary and that he had served in death camps. (Everyone, including Demjanjuk, agreed that he was a member of that dreadful group.) “Both” Demjanjuks had at least that much in common.

In 2004, after five more years of legal process, Demjanjuk, who admitted being a former member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary, finally had his citizenship revoked again. For the next five years, Demjanjuk could not be deported because no nation with adequate deportation agreements with the USA would accept him.

In 2008, the German justice ministry decided that they could and should try Demjanjuk for the easily provable charges that he had served in several death camps as a Ukrainian SS volunteer. Demjanjuk and his legal team resisted extradition to Germany. On what grounds, you ask? Why, on the grounds the deporting an elderly man with health problems constituted “torture.” That from the death camp goon.

On May 12, 2011, some minute measure of “justice” was given to the memory of the millions of concentration camp victims when Demjanjuk was convicted of accessory to the murder of 27,000 prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in prison with credit for the two years he had already spent.

On March 17, 2012, John Demjanjuk died in an old age home in Germany.

In their desperate need to be relevant on the world stage, Putin and his boys are claiming they have documents proving that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible. The documents would, I suppose, show that documents previously released by the USSR were forgeries of older documents covered up by them, and that I should now believe the new documents somehow prove something. It hardly matters. Demjanjuk admitted that he was a member of the Ukrainian auxiliary of the Nazi SS. The only confusion would be whether he was “Murderer A” or “Murderer B.” Neither deserved less than what Demjanjuk went through.

The justice was imperfect and inadequate, but it was never superfluous.

So who is the strange man who was arrested at an airport in Mauritania, and why does he matter? He is Abdullah Senussi, Moammar Qaddafi’s brother-in-law. At various times, he was the head of Qaddafi’s terrorist export business and the head of his internal security forces. Senussi had nothing to do with the Nazi plague, but he had a great deal to due with the plague that was visited upon Libya and upon terrorist victims around the world by Qaddafi.

Many believe, including me, that Abdullah al-Senussi was instrumental in the terror bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin in 1986, which killed three people and injured 230, as well as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of another 270. Also, Senussi was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 for the 1989 terror bombing of the French UTA flight 772, which resulted in 171 deaths.

Senussi’s foreign murder record pales in comparison to his energetic campaigns to annihilate Libyans who opposed his brother-in-law. He even once bragged about his masterful handling of the massacre of 1,700 political prisoners at Libya’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.

The precise number of deaths in which Senussi had a hand will never be known. Compared to the Nazis, the Qaddafi gang was small time in the murder arena. The number of deaths that they inflicted will never be known, but if it was your child or your loved one, then that one is hugely significant.

Lots of folks are interested in getting their hands on Abdullah Senussi. So far, France and Libya have requested that he be turned over to them. Scotland is probably working on an extradition request tonight as I write this article. Germany might contemplate it. The USA and the UK have reasons to speak to him, but might not bother getting in the extradition line. If he is brought to trial, we can expect, at best, an inadequate and incomplete justice. But more justice is better than no justice. I’ll take what I can get.

Without waiting for it to happen, I am willing to predict that some “pundits” will proffer the notion that trying Senussi is somehow contrary to the notion of “healing” Libya. Senussi was part of the very disease that made Libya so sick during the reign of Qaddafi and his murderers. Trying Senussi does not block Libya’s so far mostly imaginary progress toward achieving civilization. Undoubtedly, a few will argue that it’s “too late” and that it’s time to “leave the past in the past, etc.” But I would ask of them the same question that I would ask of those who wanted Demjanjuk “left alone.”

When do the deaths of the innocent children cease to matter?