A former SS guard who is now 94 was sentenced to five years in prison for his role as an accessory in the murder of at least 170,000 people in the Auschwitz-Birkeneu concentration camp in Poland.

Reinhold Hanning’s verdict and sentence were handed down during the afternoon of June 17 from the district court in Detmold, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Judge Anke Grudda, in her address to the defendant in the courtroom on June 17, said, “You were in Auschwitz for almost two and a half years and thus assisted in mass murder.”

The chief prosecutor had recommended six years in prison while the defending attorneys wanted Hanning released, claiming that there was no proof that Hanning had committed individual acts of murder. “He did not kill or beat anyone himself,” attorney Johannes Salmen said, according to the Bild newspaper.

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said that while the sentence in this case did not make up for decades of foot-dragging by German justice, it was welcome news “for victims and their families. We owe a debt of thanks to the witnesses who spoke during the trial. It was not easy for them,” Schuster told reporters.

“No perpetrator should be able to say: ‘For me, it’s the past,’” he added. “The trial brings to the forefront, once again, what people are capable of doing to one another, and what incitement against minorities can lead to. So the trial made an important contribution to four dealing with German history.”

Hanning joined the Hitler Youth in 1934, the Waffen SS in 1942, and was stationed at Auschwitz in 1942 until 1944.

Hanning’s trial is likely one of the last trials of Nazis in Germany. In late 2013, clue leading to approximately 30 suspects came from the Central Office for the Investigation of Nationalist Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg, which made a major effort to identify former concentration camp guards after the conviction of John Demjanjuk in 2011 for his role in the murders of nearly 30,000 Jews in the Sobibor death camp in Poland.

Investigations were also aided by tips from the public, after Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office announced that there would be a reward for information leading to the conviction of Nazi war criminals in what the center called “Operation Last Chance.”

The Demjanjuk case set a legal precedent, in that being a guard at a death camp was sufficient to prove complicity in murder.

Hanning had told the court in April: “I want to say that it disturbs me deeply that I was part of such a criminal organization.

“I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologise for my actions. I am very, very sorry.”

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