Jury to visit site of war crimes

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THE JUDGE and jury in Britain's first Nazi war crimes trial will next week visit Belarus in eastern Europe to see where four murders were allegedly committed more than 56 years ago. In an unprecedented move, the court will travel to the former Soviet republic as part of the trial of Anthony Sawoniuk.

Mr Sawoniuk, 77, from Bermondsey, south London, is alleged to have murdered four Jews, two men and two women, in 1942 while a police officer in what was then German-occupied territory.

Yesterday at the Old Bailey, the judge, Mr Justice Potts, told the jury the case they were trying was "highly unusual". He told them: "The defendant was a police officer serving in a small town called Domachevo, near Brest, while the German army occupied the region. It is alleged that he assisted the Germans in putting into effect the policy of mass murder of the local Jewish population. "If either you or your family has suffered as a result of German action against Jewish or other races or religions then it would be better if you did not serve on this jury."

Mr Sawoniuk, a retired rail worker, is charged with four counts of murder on dates between 19 September and 31 December 1942. He has denied all charges.

Yesterday Mr Sawoniuk, thick-set, white-haired and wearing a grey pullover and red tie, sat at a table in the well of the court in front of the dock. He was silent as the jury was selected from a panel of 39 - all of whom had been told the trial could last to the end of March.

John Nutting QC, for the prosecution, told the jury the intention of the visit - arranged at the request of the defence - was to allow them to see where the crimes were said to have been committed. He said: "[The judge] ordered that the jury have the advantage of visiting the scene where these events took place in order to better understand... the town itself, the terrain and the site where Mr Sawoniuk is alleged to have murdered a number of Jews."

He said that over the coming days, the Crown would call Professor Christopher Browning, "an expert of matters relating to the Holocaust and... to the `Final Solution'."

The trial, which is certain to reopen the debate about whether defendants can receive a fair trial half a century after their alleged crimes, follows the passing in 1991 of the War Crimes Act. The Act extended British jurisdiction to cover alleged war crimes committed by non-British nationals in German- controlled territory during the Second World War.

At the time it was estimated there were about 300 possible war criminals in Britain - most of them former members of police units from the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

In 1996 a case involving Szymon Serafinowicz, who was accused on three specimen charges of murdering Jews in Belarus, collapsed before reaching trial. Mr Serafinowicz, 86, who denied the charges, was found to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease, heart problems and cancer. He died seven months later.

Yesterday the hearing was adjourned at lunchtime to allow the jurors to receive inoculations against hepatitis, typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus and polio in preparation for the visit. The judge warned them to take warm clothes, adding: "This will not be a holiday."

The case continues.