CLEVELAND – John Demjanjuk was released from US federal custody Tuesday evening, just hours after six immigration officers removed the accused Nazi death camp guard from his suburban home in a wheelchair, authorities said.
Federal officials had taken Demjanjuk to a federal building in downtown Cleveland, but the 89-year-old retired autoworker's impending return to Germany was halted when three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of deportation.
An arrest warrant in Germany claims Demjanjuk was an accessory to some 29,000 deaths during World War II at the Sobibor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Once in Germany, he could be formally charged in court.
Demjanjuk was driven to his home in Seven Hills after his release, former son-in-law and family spokesman Ed Nishnic said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement they'll supervise him through electronic monitoring.
In granting the stay, the three-judge panel said it would further consider Demjanjuk's motion to reopen the U.S. case that ordered the deportation, in which he says painful medical ailments would make travel to Germany torturous.
Citing the need to act because of the possibility of Demjanjuk's imminent deportation, the court issued the stay without addressing the U.S. government's argument that the court had no jurisdiction to rule on Demjanjuk's appeal.
The government planned to continue its legal battle in court, said Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney.
Nishnic said the family was relieved the stay was granted.
"We're delighted. We're prepared to make our arguments with the 6th Circuit, and it's just a shame that Mr. Demjanjuk had to go through the hell that he went through once again this morning," he said as he walked into a federal building in Cleveland where Demjanjuk was being held.
Earlier Tuesday, Demjanjuk's wife, Vera, sobbed and held her hands to her mouth as immigration officers loaded his wheelchair into a van at their home. As the van moved down the street, Vera turned and waved, sobbing in the arms of a granddaughter.
Several family members, including a 10-year-old grandson, were in the home when the officers removed Demjanjuk.
Nishnic said Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, told his family, "I love you," in Ukrainian and was aware that the officers were there to take him to Germany.
Nishnic said his former father-in-law moaned in pain as he was placed in the wheelchair.
"It was horrendous. He was in such pain. I wouldn't want to see anyone go through something like that," said granddaughter Olivia Nishnic, 20.
John Demjanjuk Jr., who filed the appeal with the 6th Circuit earlier Tuesday, said the government hadn't lived up to earlier understandings of how his father would be removed.
"They told me that they would have an ambulance. They told me we would have three to five days' notice, and obviously you can't believe everything the government tells you," he told The Associated Press by phone while headed back to Cleveland from the federal appeals court in Cincinnati.
He predicted his father would not survive long enough in Germany to stand trial.
"If he is deported, if this madness and inhumane action is not stopped by the 6th Circuit, he will live out his life in a (German) hospital. He will never be put on trial," he said. "It makes absolutely no sense that the Germans, after nearly killing him in combat, would try to kill him once again."
The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was undeterred.
"We remain confident that John Demjanjuk will be deported and finally face the bar of justice for the unspeakable crimes he committed during World War II when he was a guard at the Sobibor death camp," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, Wiesenthal Center founder.
"His work at the Sobibor death camp was to push men, women and children into the gas chamber. He had no mercy, no pity and no remorse for the families whose lives he was destroying forever," Hier said.
Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the Demjanjuk case illustrates that there is no statute of limitations on the crime of genocide.
"The issue is holding him accountable, no matter what his age," she said.
Dwork said she believes German prosecutors acted cautiously and deliberately in bringing their case because they can't afford to run a weak trial. Germany's image in the eyes of the international community would be tarnished if Demjanjuk is acquitted, she said.
Demjanjuk, a native Ukrainian, has denied being a Nazi guard and claims he was a prisoner of war of the Germans. He came to the United States after the war as a refugee.
Demjanjuk had been tried in Israel after accusations surfaced that he was the notorious Nazi guard "Ivan the Terrible" in Poland at the Treblinka death camp. He was found guilty in 1988 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a conviction later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
A U.S. judge revoked his citizenship in 2002 based on Justice Department evidence showing he concealed his service at Sobibor and other Nazi-run death and forced labor camps.
An immigration judge ruled in 2005 he could be deported to Germany, Poland or Ukraine.