Hidden legacy of the fugitives from war: List of suspects led to action

THE GOVERNMENT was forced to consider the possiblity that war criminals were living in Britain in 1987 when the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles gave a list of 17 suspects to Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary.

Mr Hurd was at first sceptical, insisted there was nothing that could be done under Britsh law and that extradition to eastern Europe was unacceptable because countries there still had the death penalty. He offered only to see if the men named were in Britain and still alive. Some were and the Wiesenthal Centre and others produced more names.

Mr Hurd finally set up a commission under Sir Thomas Hetherington, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, and William Chalmers, former Crown Agent for Scotland. The commission investigated 301 alleged war criminals living in Britain - seven in detail - and in its report in 1989 found sufficient evidence against four for a prospect of conviction. Two have since died.

Their report recommended further investigation of 75 names traced to Britain and 46 more who might be alive, but had not been traced. At least another 20 names of suspects have been supplied by the Wiesenthal Centre.

In a free vote, the Commons voted in principle for legislation and then passed the Bill. The Lords rejected it and the Commons forced it through last year using the Parliament Act.

Specialist war crimes units were set up in England and Scotland, with an annual budget of pounds 10m. There have been no arrests yet, although files are believed to be close to completion on three suspects in England.

Canada and Australia, other countries which passed war crimes legislation in the 1980s, have failed to prosecute anyone, but the US Office of Special Investigations has had the citizenship of 80 war criminals revoked.