lady painting


Jan 2001 Journal

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War Crimes Inquiries

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the names of some 400 suspects were investigated by British police officers under the 1991 War Crimes Act. Detectives travelled to Eastern Europe, Israel, Canada, the United States, South Africa and New Zealand in search of information and witnesses. The result of this unprecedented operation was that two people were prosecuted; one was convicted. The 1989 inquiry under Sir Thomas Hetherington and William Chalmers which recommended war crimes legislation, recognised that time would be the chief enemy of a successful prosecution. With elderly suspects and elderly witnesses scattered in many countries, it would be imperative to stage trials as swiftly as possible. Their eminently sensible proposal to miss out the committal hearing in war crimes cases was never implemented.

The first person to be prosecuted for war crimes was Szymon Serafinowicz. He was charged in July 1995, when he was already eighty-five. It was not until January 1997 that his trial was scheduled at the Old Bailey. By this time, he was in failing health and the jury decided that he was unfit to plead. Given the strength of evidence, there is little doubt that Serafinowicz, a collaborationist police chief responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths, would have been convicted. Scotland Yard’s war crimes unit first became aware of the name Serafinowicz at the end of 1991, so why did it take three and a half years to charge him? The police explanation is that they had the wrong spelling. It took eighteen months to track him down in the UK – even though he was in the telephone book and had lived in the same house in Banstead in Surrey since 1956.

It happened again in the case of Anthony Sawoniuk, the only man to have been convicted under the War Crimes Act. The result was that a man whose name was first given to the UK authorities as a war crimes suspect in 1988 was not arrested and charged for another nine years. It emerges that he was not even a new suspect when he came to the attention of the police in 1991.

Research which I have carried out in the United States reveals that the name Serafinowicz was passed to the UK authorities in 1982 by the American OSI (the Nazi-hunting unit within the Department of Justice). The Americans had been told that Serafinowicz was in Britain and a formal request was made to the Foreign Office to make inquiries. According to the present director of the OSI, Whitehall turned a deaf ear. ‘They simply didn’t want to know,’ he told me. The irony is that if the Foreign Office had but known it (or indeed, evinced any interest), there was damning information about Serafinowicz on their very own doorstep – in the files of M15. Serafinowicz ‘is said to have taken part in arrests, executions and burning of villages and to be guilty of the deaths of numerous persons’. However, their view that Serafinowicz ‘should be treated as a war criminal’ led only to the most cursory of investigations, in which the suspect was exonerated.

In 1967, a Jewish survivor from the town of Mir – of which Serafinowicz was police chief in 1941 – was interviewed by the police in Israel. He says he saw Serafinowicz shoot his friend dead. He added that the killer was ‘said to be living somewhere in England’. This statement was in the files of the Australian Special Investigation Unit which examined a number of Byelorussian cases in the 1980s. Why did Scotland Yard not get hold of this highly significant material right at the outset of their inquiries? In the 1970s, the name of Serafinowicz came up a number of times during the trial of a Wehrmacht officer, but Scotland Yard had no inkling of this until 1993.

I have copies of KGB files which reveal that the Soviets knew as early as 1951 that Serafinowicz was living in England. They even had his exact address. So, when Scotland Yard put out a bullish statement, as they did in 1997, extolling their unique and exhaustive investigation into Szymon Serafinowicz, perhaps it should not be taken entirely at face value.

The parliamentary debates on the War Crimes Bill in 1990 and 1991 were among the most ferocious in postwar history, with the opposition spearheaded by some of the country’s most distinguished politician lawyers – such as Lord Shawcross, Britain’s chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Lord Hailsham, the former Lord Chancellor. With the warning that this was retrospective legislation – and, as such, thoroughly bad law – ringing in their ears, the prosecuting agencies in England and Scotland knew they had to tread carefully. They were also acutely conscious that other jurisdictions, such as Australia and Canada, which had similarly changed their law to allow war crimes prosecutions, had not achieved a single conviction between them.

Understandable caution led the CPS to adopt a policy which, in my view, was highly controversial. On March 29th, 1999 – three days before the jury returned with its verdict in the trial of Anthony Sawoniuk – a background briefing note issued to the media revealed the fourth prosecuting criterion to which the police were working in their war crimes investigations: Before a suspect ‘could be considered a serious candidate for prosecution’, there needed to be ‘proof that the defendant was in a position of command; responsibility is also an important factor in deciding on the defendant’s culpability.’ Both parts are highly contentious. The 1991 War Crimes Act says nothing at all about command or responsibility and makes no stipulation about the status of potential suspects. Surely, the Nuremberg trials established for all time the principle that obeying the orders of a superior was not an acceptable defence.

In 259 of the 400 cases investigated, there was either insufficient evidence to prosecute or the subject’s health precluded a prosecution. Even if only 20 per cent were guilty, that’s more than fifty people who lived out their lives in tranquility, having taken part in the greatest act of mass murder of the twentieth century. Was Britain a haven for war criminals? The answer is self-evident.

Abridged from History Today, November 2000.
Jon Silverman – BBC Home Affairs Correspondent.

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