Kurt Schrimm, the head of the Ludwigsburg federal prosecutors' office, said an investigation of about 50 alleged former guards turned up enough evidence to recommend that state prosecutors pursue charges of accessory to murder against 30 of them in Germany. Another seven suspects who live outside the country are still being investigated.
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The cases are being sent to the responsible state prosecutors' offices in 11 of Germany's 16 states. It will be up to them to determine whether the elderly suspects – primarily men but also some women – are fit to stand trial and whether to bring official charges.
"The biggest enemy is time," Schrimm told reporters.
Accessory to murder charges 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 last year while appealing his 2011 conviction on charges he served as a Sobibor death camp guard, Schrimm said.
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 argument, 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.
Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said the decision could mean even more cases will be opened against guards at the other five main death camps established by the Nazis.
"We commend the (prosecutors) for seeking to apply the precedent as widely as possible and hope that they will be able to find as many perpetrators as possible," he said in a telephone interview.
"It's only a shame that this kind of legal reasoning was not applied previously, because it would have led to many, many more cases of people who definitely deserved to be brought to justice."
Schrimm said that even guards who worked in a death camp's kitchens played a role in the facility's function as a site that existed for the purpose of mass murder.
Still he cautioned that the health of the suspects – and of possible witnesses – would make bringing them to trial difficult.
"I don't want to raise excessive expectations," he said.
About 1.5 million people, primarily Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz camp complex alone between 1940 and 1945.
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