Campaigners for a law change making it harder for war criminals to use Britain as a safe haven were yesterday celebrating the first arrest made under the new legislation.
The arrest was of a 46-year-old man living in Tiverton, Devon, who is suspected of involvement in death squads which operated in Peru as a state-backed initiative to target guerrilla groups, especially the Shining Path.
His detention was made possible by a change in the law last year which extended the historical cut-off point – from 2001 to 1991 – for prosecuting someone for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.
The civil conflict in Peru, the worst of which took place during the 1980s and 1990s, was brutal and led to the death or disappearance of 70,000 people. Shining Path, the Maoist revolutionary group trying to take over the country, was notorious for the level of violence it employed but so were the government-backed death squads.
Officers from the anti-terrorist squad arrested the man, who is suspected of involvement in more than 100 killings, and searched a home and a business address as part of the investigation.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: "MPS officers arrested a 46-year-old man at a residential address in Tiverton, Devon, on suspicion of crimes against humanity and torture.
"He was taken to a police station in Devon. He has now been bailed to return to a central London police station in July. Searches were carried out at a residential address and a business premises in Tiverton. They are now complete."
Last year's change in the law, introduced in the Coroners and Justice Act, was followed a campaign by the Aegis Trust to close a loophole that it said had allowed dozens of genocide and war crimes suspects to live in the UK with impunity. Nick Donovan, from the Trust, said after learning of the police raid: "It's great to see the new law being used already. Obviously this man is innocent until proven guilty, but if this arrest leads to a successful prosecution it will be a great day for the families of the victims."
The law change was intended primarily to allow people involved in war crimes and genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans to be brought to justice.
* Celestin Ugirashebuja was a mayor in the Kigoma district of Rwanda in the 1990s and is suspected of organising roadblocks and urging Hutus to kill Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. In 2006 he was arrested at his home in Essex with three other men. They were alleged to have been involved in the genocide but in 2009 attempts to extradict them collapsed when the High Court ruled there was a serious risk they would not get a fair trial in Rwanda.
* In 1995 Szymon Serafinowicz became the first man to be arrested in the UK on war crimes charges after police arrived at his home in Banstead, Surrey. The next year he was committed for trial. The 85-year-old was a suspected Nazi war criminal, and was charged with the murders of three Jews while he was a police chief in his native Belarus in 1941 and 1942 after the German invasion. In 1997 he was ruled unfit for trial on the grounds of his dementia, and died shortly afterwards.