'He scarcely reacted as the details of the alleged multiple murders were given' over 3 deckys hy

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Legal Affairs Correspondent

Britain's first war crimes prosecution began in Surrey yesterday as Szymon Serafinovich, 85, stood in the dock accused of the murder of Jews in German- occupied Eastern Europe more than 50 years ago.

One of the four charges, relating to an alleged shooting in October 1941 in the village of Turets, Belarus, was dropped yesterday by the prosecution at the start of committal proceedings at Dorking magistrates' court.

The charges that the defendant, who lives in Banstead, Surrey, still faces are firstly that on 4 November 1941 in Turets he murdered an unknown Jew in circumstances constituting a violation of the laws and customs of war, contrary to common law. The second and third charges are similar, relating to killings in the town of Mir on 9 November 1941, and nearby Kryniczne between 31 December 1941 and 1 March 1942.

Seated in the dock yesterday, Mr Serafinovich wore a short fur coat over a check shirt, pullover and corduroy trousers. Only his head, with his white hair and gaunt cheeks, could be seen above the dock rail.

When asked to confirm his name by the court clerk, he had to ask her to speak louder. He still has a pronounced accent, but a firm voice, despite his physical frailty.

He scarcely reacted as the details of the alleged multiple murders were given, occasionally turning as if to hear better, as John Nutting QC opened the case for the prosecution.

Mr Nutting, who had to struggle with the pronunciation of place-names in four languages, was surrounded at times by maps of the country, then a part of the Soviet Union invaded by the Nazis.

Reporting restrictions were not lifted yesterday for the first case to come to court under the 1991 War Crimes Act, which made it possible to try people in Britain for murder or manslaughter in German-occupied territories even if they were not British at the time of the Second World War.

A huge debate surrounded the Act, concerning the morality and practicality of trials in which all witnesses and defendants are in old age. No other cases have been brought, despite a massive police investigation.

Mr Serafinovich, who worked as a carpenter after arriving from England during the war, was arrested and charged in July 1995, and is allowed to continue living at his home on bail on condition that he does not attempt to obtain a passport.

He has been granted legal aid, and retained counsel, William Clegg QC.

This hearing will be one of the last "old-style" committal hearings where the defence can ask for witnesses to appear in person for cross-examination. The procedure is due to be abolished in favour of the procedure already common in which magistrates assess from the statements on paper whether there is a strong enough case to commit for trial at a Crown Court, or in this case the Old Bailey.

The hearing was adjourned until 19 February. Witnesses to the alleged crimes will travel to Dorking from London, Poland, Israel, Russia, Belarus, South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia.