Sawoniuk, 78, was given two life sentences in April this year after being convicted at the Old Bailey of murdering Jews in Nazi-occupied Belarus, in eastern Europe. The court heard how he murdered two Jewish men and a woman, and also ordered 15 Jewish women to strip and face an open grave before killing them with a machine-gun.
The trial judge, Mr Justice Potts, has made recommendations to the Home Secretary Jack Straw that the retired British Rail ticket collector, of Bermondsey, south-east London, should die in jail. It is understood that the judge has told Mr Straw that "an earlier release would defeat the purpose of the War Crimes Act and the object of the trial".
But Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, disclosed yesterday that his recommendation to the Home Secretary had advised that deterrence had "little part" in the sentence and retribution "must be moderated" when it is delayed for nearly 60 years, and in light of Sawoniuk's age.
The head of the Holocaust Education Trust, Lord Janner, was the first to oppose the idea of early release. He said: "If you had sat through, as I did, and listened to the evidence of how this man lined up 15 women who were stripped naked, shot them dead and they fell into a pit, your view would be the same as the trial judge - which is that life should mean life,"
He is backed by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, who said there were a number of elderly people serving time in British prisons, many for minor offences. She said that when Sawoniuk was sentenced in April there were 120 men over the age of 70 serving prison sentences, and insisted that Sawoniuk should not be treated as a special case. "If the Home Secretary is prepared to offer an amnesty to all convicts approaching the age of 80 then this is a debate that should be held in public."
But others support the possibility of a compassionate early release. Baroness Warnock said she agreed with the Lord Chief Justice. "We must continue to bring to trial war criminals but to pursue the punishment to the bitter end is mercilessly wrong."
Franklyn Sinclair, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and a non-practising Jew, said people had to consider the case dispassionately. "Apart from in the most serious circumstances, like the Yorkshire Ripper where someone is a danger to society, everyone should be given the hope of release." He suggested the tariff should be a sentence of between seven and eight years.
Paul Cavadino, director of policy for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said that it was wrong to rule out the possibility of release. Lord Bingham said yesterday that while he acknowledged that Mr Justice Potts' approach was tenable he inclined to an alternative view.
Sawoniuk's solicitor, Martin Lee, began an appeal process by lodging papers with the Central Criminal Court a fortnight after his client was convicted. Mr Lee has said he hopes a full appeal before three judges could be heard before August.
Baroness Warnock, philosopher: "We must bring him to justice, but to pursue punishment to the bitter end is wrong."
Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher: "If he did those terrible things then he should have been shot."
Gitta Sereny, writer:
"I don't think it is either important or relevant for war criminals to be in prison for a long time."
Lord Ackner, retired law lord:
"I think some offences are so serious that life means life - and Ibelieve this is such a case."Reuse content