MUNICH — A German court convicted retired U.S. autoworker John Demjanjuk on Thursday of taking part in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews as a Nazi death camp guard, breaking legal ground that could pave the way for the prosecution of many low-level cogs in Hitler's machinery of destruction.
The 91-year-old Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison on 28,060 counts of accessory to murder — one each for the number of people killed at the Sobibor death camp during the six months in 1943 when he was convicted of standing guard there.
But Demjanjuk will spend no immediate time behind bars. Presiding Judge Ralph Alt ordered him released from custody pending his appeal — a process that could take at least a year. It was not immediately clear when Demjanjuk would be released or where he would go.
The case was considered groundbreaking because although scores of Nazi war criminals have been tried and convicted in Germany, in this case there was no evidence that Demjanjuk (dem-YAHN'-yuk) committed a specific crime.
His prosecution was based on the theory that if Demjanjuk was at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, he was a participant in the killing there — the first time such a legal argument has been made in German courts.
"This case is a door opener," said Thomas Walther, a former federal prosecutor who led the investigation that prompted Germany to put Demjanjuk on trial.
The Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was a Soviet Red Army soldier captured by the Germans in Crimea in 1942. He is accused of then agreeing to serve as a "wachmann," or guard, the lowest rank of the "Hilfswillige," former POWs who were subordinate to German SS men.
Walther said his office has many cases that have been investigated but shelved and could now be reopened. Although it's hard to say how many living suspects might fall into the same category as Demjanjuk, it could be hundreds or more, Walther said.