MUNICH (AP) - Retired U.S. autoworker John Demjanjuk was convicted Thursday of accessory to murder as a low-level Nazi death camp guard, a groundbreaking decision setting a precedent that could open the floodgates to a new wave of prosecutions in Germany.
Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for the number of people who were killed in the Sobibor death camp when the court said evidence shows he stood guard there in 1943.
But the 91-year-old will spend no immediate time behind bars after Presiding Judge Ralph Alt ordered him released from custody pending his appeal - a process that could take at least a year.
Though such a move is common under the German system, it drew the immediate ire of some of those who had been pushing for Demjanjuk's conviction.
"We don't think that that's appropriate given the heinous nature of his crimes," Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
Still, Zuroff called the conviction "a very important victory for justice."
"The verdict sends a very powerful message that, even many years after the crimes of the Holocaust, the perpetrators can be brought to justice," he said. "We're hopeful that this verdict will pave the way for additional prosecutions in Germany."
Though scores of Nazi war criminals have been tried and convicted in Germany, in this case there was no evidence that Demjanjuk committed a specific crime.
His prosecution was based on the theory that if Demjanjuk was at the camp, he was a participant in the killing - the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts.
Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was accused of having served as a "wachmann," a guard, the lowest rank of the "Hilfswillige" volunteers who were subordinate to German SS men.
Former federal prosecutor Thomas Walther, who led the investigation that prompted Germany to prosecute Demjanjuk, said that his office has "a lot" of cases that have been investigated, but shelved, which could now be reopened.
"It could be very soon that more are brought to the table," he told the AP. "This case is a door opener."
He said it is hard to say how many living suspects might still be out there that might fall into the same category as Demjanjuk, but it could be hundreds or more.
It was not clear when Demjanjuk would be released from prison, nor where he would go.
Alt said Demjanjuk did not pose a flight risk because of his advanced age, poor health and the fact that the defendant, deported from the U.S. two years ago, is stateless.
Alt told the AP that meant there were "no grounds" to hold him. "It's the law, and so it's justice," he added. "I say he's guilty, but it's not a final verdict."
His son, John Demjanjuk Jr., said his father needs daily medical attention and would likely need to be moved into an assisted care facility - the costs of which would be paid by the German government - but that details are still being decided.
"We're in the planning stage and I can't say where he's going to go," he told the AP in a telephone interview from Ohio.
Still, he said he was relieved at the decision to free his father "because he has never deserved to sit in prison for one minute."
But "after everything that he's gone through, it is hard to use a word like happy in any context."
He said he planned to visit his father but was not sure when, but said his 85-year-old mother is in poor health and unable to travel.
In handing down the court's ruling, Alt called Demjanjuk a piece of the Nazis' "machinery of destruction."
"The court is convinced that the defendant ... served as a guard at Sobibor from 27 March 1943 to mid-September 1943," Alt said, closing a trial that lasted nearly 18 months.
Demjanjuk sat in a wheelchair in front of the judges as they announced their verdict, but showed no reaction. He has denied the charges, but declined the opportunity to make a final statement to the court.
Integral to the prosecution's case was an SS identity card that allegedly shows a picture of a young Demjanjuk, and indicates he trained at the SS Trawniki camp and was posted to Sobibor.
Though court experts said the card appears genuine, the defense maintains it is a fake produced by the Soviet KGB.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations also has said the card is genuine, but documents recently unearthed by the AP indicate that the FBI at one time had doubts similar to those aired by Demjanjuk's defense about the evidence - though the material was never turned over to them.
Alt noted that in addition to the card, however, the court found other credible evidence, including transfer lists indicating a guard named Demjanjuk with the same Trawniki number was sent to serve in Sobibor and elsewhere.
Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk has been stripped of his U.S. citizenship and has been in custody in Germany since his deportation two years ago.
Cornelius Nestler, a lawyer for co-plaintiffs, said he likely would serve three years at most, given the time he has already spent in German custody.
But he said he, too, was satisfied with the sentence, which came close to prosecutors' call for a six-year term. That call took into account the defendant's age, and time he already served in Israel in the 1980s.
Charges of accessory to murder carry a maximum term of 15 years in Germany, which does not allow consecutive sentences for multiple counts of the same crime.
Demjanjuk has always maintained he was a victim of the Nazis - first wounded as a Soviet soldier fighting German forces, then captured and held as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions before joining the Vlasov Army, a force of anti-communist Soviet POWs and others that was formed to fight with the Germans against the Soviets in the final months of the war.
Prosecutors said that after his capture, the evidence shows Demjanjuk agreed to serve the German SS and was posted to Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland.