Stage set for epic war crimes case

Legacy of the Third Reich: 84-year-old man accused of Second World War murders makes second appearance in court
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The Independent Online

The first man to be charged with war crimes under British law appeared before magistrates at Epsom in Surrey, yesterday.

Szymon Serafinowicz, 84, is facing four charges of murder under the War Crimes Act.

The 1991 Act allows for men now living in Britain to be prosecuted for alleged offences committed in German-occupied territories during the Second World War.

Mr Serafinowicz has been charged in relation to a series of killings in Belorussia in 1941. He was arrested and first appeared before magistrates in July this year.

White-haired, cheeks hollow with age, he stood in the dock throughout an eight-and-a-half- minute hearing in the wood panelled courtroom yesterday, and was remanded on conditional bail until 2 November.

The entire Dorking magistrates' court building has been reserved for the whole of January and February for an "old-style" full committal hearing of the charges against Mr Serafinowicz.

The War Crimes Act included a provision for a fast-track committal by magistrates to the Old Bailey for trial because of the special circumstances of the cases, which are complex and involve witnesses and defendants of an advanced age.

But the Home Office made a drafting error, which was realised by ministers whilst the Act was going through Parliament, but was never amended by succeeding Home Secretaries. Under an old-style committal an examining magistrate has to hear from the prosecution witnesses in person.

They can be cross-examined by the defence, and the magistrate then has to decide whether there is a prima facie case to commit to a higher court for trial.

The Home Office's error may mean huge extra expense to the taxpayer. Up to 26 witnesses are expected to be called by the prosecution to appear in Dorking, and many will have to be flown into Britain from other countries.

Both sides' legal costs are being paid out of public funds. If the defendant is committed for trial, the witnesses will have to be flown in for a second time. The procedure also means a substantially increased delay. Mr Serafinowicz will be 85 by the time the committal starts and most witnesses are of a similar age.

Committal proceedings cannot be reported unless restrictions are lifted.

A statement read by Mr Serafinowicz's solicitor, Nicholas Bowers, outside the court after the first appearance in July said: "My client is completely innocent of these charges and a full and vigorous defence will now be prepared. My client entered this country in 1945. Since that time he has been an honest and hard-working member of society.

"In his work as a builder and carpenter, he has contributed considerably to the community for many years.

"He has been aware of the police investigation for more than two years, and has been under considerable pressure in view of the possibility of charges being brought. He is now determined to have these matters brought to trial so that he will have the opportunity to clear his name and to live out the remainder of his years in peace." Outside court yesterday, Mr Bowers said his client had never taken British citizenship, and had never had a British passport.