Cleveland (AP) - A plane was waiting nearby to fly alleged Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk to Germany to face an arrest warrant and a possible war crimes trial.
But the frail 89-year-old retired autoworker won a late reprieve from an appeals court Tuesday, and with it, another chance to argue that his deportation would amount to torture, given his medical condition.
Six immigration officers carried Demjanjuk in a wheelchair from his ranch home in suburban Seven Hills on Tuesday. His mouth hung open, his head slumped back, and cameras clicked away to record the rare public appearance.
Former son-in-law and family spokesman Ed Nishnic said Demjanjuk moaned in pain. His wife and family cried as they waved goodbye.
But within hours, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay until it could consider Demjanjuk's motion to reopen the U.S. case that ordered him deported.
Demjanjuk seemed relieved and whispered, "OK," when told of the stay while still in custody, Nishnic said.
"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," Nishnic said.
Demjanjuk was released from custody later Tuesday, and family members returned him to his home in Seven Hills, where the day's events had begun. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the government will continue its legal battle in court.
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 denies involvement in any war crimes and has argued against deportation, saying he suffers from a bone marrow disorder, kidney disease, anemia, kidney stones, arthritis, gout and spinal deterioration.
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 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.
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. Germany's image in the eyes of the international community would take a hit 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.
Associated Press Writers Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland, Terry Kinney in Cincinnati, Kantele Franko and Matt Leingang in Columbus, Devlin Barrett in Washington and Roland Losch in Munich contributed to this report.