Legal Affairs Correspondent
Britain's first war crimes trial is to go ahead at the Old Bailey early next year, with a man in his eighties charged with mass murders committed more than half a century ago in Eastern Europe.
Prosecution witnesses living overseas have been visited in the past week by British police and lawyers, who have told them of the decision to proceed with the case, and to be available to give evidence from February.
Under the special terms of the war crimes legislation, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, has to approve prosecutions. He is understood to be satisfied with the case and, once final checks have been made, is expected to give the formal go-ahead for the trial within a month.
All the accused will be given legal aid so they can mount a no-expense- spared defence. This is to prevent any suggestion that, with millions of pounds spent on investigations to gather evidence, they will not be given the chance of a fair trial.
Lawyers at the Crown Prosecution Service, which has for several months been weighing up the seven cases produced by Scotland Yard's War Crimes Unit, have told Sir Nicholas that the case of a retired man living in Surrey is likely to result in a conviction.
The case is considered by the sources close to the investigation to be the strongest sent to the CPS at the end of four years of investigations around the world into the war records of suspected war criminals.
A Pole who came to Britain after the war and is now a UK citizen, the man is accused of being in charge of a battalion which carried out mass executions of civilians, mainly Jews, in ghettoes around the town of Mir, 100 miles from the Belorussian capital of Minsk.
It is claimed that when the battalion invaded the Mir region in 1941, more than 4,000 Jews lived there. Four years later, only 30 had survived.
Survivors in the Belorussian village of Kryniczno have given statements to police about the alleged atrocities. Other survivors prepared to testify in court now live in Israel and Britain.
One key witness is a half-Jewish officer who served alongside the accused, who has since become a Carmelite monk. He maintains that the man presided over torture and murder while he was in command of more than 500 paramilitary policemen.
Members of the Scotland Yard police unit of nine detectives, two historians, two constables and five civilian support staff visited Russia, the Bal- kans, the Baltic States, Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Israel, America, Canada and South Africa during the investigation. More than 300 cases were reviewed, with more than 250 people cleared.
Many suspects have died in the past five years. Britain realised that it might be harbouring war criminals only in 1986, when a list of 17 suspects was handed to Douglas Hurd, the then Home Secretary, by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. The list grew to more than 100, of whom 30 were still under active investigation by Scotland Yard a year ago.
The suspects, now British citizens in their seventies and eighties, all came to Britain in the aftermath of the war amid a tide of innocent refugees from countries occupied firstly by Germany during the early stages of the war and then by the Soviet Union. For almost 50 years, their war records went unquestioned. More than 200,000 East Europeans settled in the UK in the years after the Second World War.
In 1991, Parliament passed the War Crimes Act to make it possible to prosecute such people in British courts. They were not previously liable for prosecution in Britain because the alleged crimes took place on foreign soil, when they were not British citizens.
The Government felt at the time that it would not be appropriate to deport them to face trial behind what was then the Iron Curtain, to countries which still imposed the death penalty.
The War Crimes Act set up investigating units in England and Wales, and Scotland. Despite spending pounds 766,000 investigating and interviewing potential witnesses in more than 10 countries, the Scottish unit had to concede earlier this year that it could not gather a case which would hold water in court. The unit was finally wound up last year.
Two Commonwealth countries, Canada and Australia, set up similar war crimes units, but although there were trials held, there have been no successful prosecutions.