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Photograph: freeimages.com/Marcelo Gerpe

A 94-year-old former Auschwitz concentration camp guard has been sentenced to five years in prison after a German court found him guilty as an accessory to the murder of more than 170,000 people, most of them Jews.

Reinhold Hanning, who volunteered to join Adolf Hitler's SS at the age of 18, participated in the systematic killing of 170,000 people between 1943 and 1944 at Auschwitz, the court in Detmold found.

Hanning was present at the camp during the so-called Hungary Operation, which saw the deportation of 425,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz during a period of three months in 1944. The majority of them were gassed to death on arrival.

Pronouncing the verdict, Judge Anke Grudda told Hanning: "You were at Auschwitz for nearly two-and-a half years, and you thus abetted mass murder."

Though the charges were focused on the 1943-1944 period for legal reasons, the court considered the full time he served there in its verdict.

The defence had argued that Hanning's mere presence at the camp did not mean he was directly responsible for the murders, while prosecutors said he could be convicted for helping the camp operate.

The World Jewish Congress welcomed the court's decision.

"There can be no impunity for genocide, mass murder or crimes against humanity, and old age is not a mitigating factor," said President Ronald Lauder, adding that Hanning "got what he deserved."

"Germany should continue to address the darkest chapter of its history, and Germans should be vigilant vis-a-vis all expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia," he added.

The four-month trial included 57 Auschwitz survivors and their family members who joined the proceedings as co-plaintiffs, as is permitted under German law.

The court heard witness accounts of atrocities committed at the camp, including the hanging of a 16-year-old boy who had stolen a piece of bread and the beating to death of a man who lost his glasses in the shower.

Hanning seemed alert during the case, but avoided eye contact with the witnesses. During an April statement to the court, he apologized to the victims and said he felt ashamed for being a member of a criminal organization and doing nothing to stop it.

For decades after the war, German courts argued that the top Nazi leadership was principally to blame for the mass murder of Jews and that lower-ranking individuals in the Holocaust machinery were bound by a chain of command and, therefore, less culpable.

That approach changed radically after a legal precedent set by the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk, who was found guilty by a Munich court as an accessory to the murder of more than 28,000 Jews while he was a guard at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.

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