The German special prosecutors' office that pursues Nazi-era crimes said Wednesday it was recommending charges be filed against an 87-year-old man on allegations he served as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp complex.
The man is accused of involvement in the killing of 344,000 Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in occupied Poland from April 1944 until shortly before it was liberated by the Soviet army in January 1945, head prosecutor Kurt Schrimm told The Associated Press.
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The suspect, whose name wasn't released, is a non-German living outside Germany, but Schrimm would give no other details.
Schrimm said charges of accessory to murder can be filed under the same legal theory that Munich prosecutors used to try former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, who died in a Bavarian nursing home in March while appealing his 2011 conviction on charges he served as a Sobibor death camp guard.
Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk was the first person convicted in Germany solely on the basis of serving as a camp guard, with no evidence of involvement in a specific killing. Under the new legal theory, anyone who was involved in the operation of a death camp was an accessory to murder. Demjanjuk steadfastly maintained that he had been mistaken for someone else and never served as a camp guard.
Even though the Demjanjuk verdict is not considered legally binding because he died before appeals were exhausted, Schrimm said the same legal principle can be applied in the case of the alleged Auschwitz guard.
About 1.5 million people, primarily Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz camp complex between 1940 and 1945.
"I can't say when he was where in the camp, but all of these guards were stationed at times on the ramps, at times at the gas chambers and at times in the towers," Schrimm said.
Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he welcomed the news of the investigation but cautioned that even if the suspect is charged, bringing him to Germany for trial could present challenges.
He noted, for example, that the Australian high court last week ruled that 90-year-old Charles Zentai could not be extradited to Hungary to face accusations he tortured and killed a Jewish teenager during World War II.
"A lot will depend on whether or not his country of residence has the political will to extradite him to Germany," Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Israel.
Schrimm's office has turned the case over to prosecutors in Weiden, in Bavaria, to determine whether to file charges. Weiden has jurisdiction over the area where the suspect last lived in Germany.
Weiden prosecutors' spokesman Norbert Dietl said the files were received on Monday, and that it would probably take at least a month to make a decision on the case.
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