War Crimes Inquiries

By Silverman, Jon | History Today, November 2000 | Go to article overview

War Crimes Inquiries


Silverman, Jon, History Today


Jon Silverman asks whether Britain sporadic and tardy efforts to pursue Nazi war criminals reflects a lack of skill or a lack of will.

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. If any other police inquiry costing at least 11 million [pounds sterling] had had such a meagre return, there would surely have been fulminating editorials in the Daily Telegraph and a barrage of questions in Parliament. But not so in this case. The war crimes process has passed from current affairs to history with barely a murmur of protest, let alone serious analysis. It is high time that was put right.

The first issue which deserves consideration can be headed `delay'. 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. The inquiry identified a major obstacle in the committal stage of a prosecution which normally determines whether a case should proceed to the crown court. In other words, it means that evidence has to be given twice. `This would be particularly burdensome for frail, elderly witnesses from abroad who would, in any event, be unfamiliar with the procedures of the courts.' The Hetherington-Chalmers solution was to miss out the committal hearing in war crimes cases.

But this eminently sensible proposal was never implemented. Although it is there in the wording of the 1991 Act, another piece of legislation (the 1933 Administration of Justice Act) needed to be amended before it could take effect. And due to what was described as a `Home Office oversight', the amendment was never brought forward.

Now, this may all sound rather technical. But consider this. The first person to be prosecuted for war crimes was Szymon Serafinowicz. He was charged in July 1995, when he was already eighty-five. The committal hearing did not take place until 1996 and lasted nearly three months. There was then further delay while an `abuse of process' challenge by the defence was considered at a separate court. So 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. A prosecution which had cost at least 2 million [pounds sterling] and required nearly twenty witnesses to travel to Britain to give evidence, collapsed. Without the committal hearing which was unnecessary, the trial could have been held much sooner. And 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.

The Serafinowicz case also illuminates other flaws which cast doubt on the commitment of the police and legal establishment to make the war crimes process a truly effective tool. 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. The name they were given had an `m' -- Serafimowicz -- rather than an `n'. This was enough to throw them completely off the scent. Despite their best (sic) efforts, 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. Incidentally, if this is hard to swallow, it happened not once but twice. …

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