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Old Bailey set to try first war crimes: Prosecution service referral moves closer

BRITAIN'S first war-crimes trials are expected to be heard at the Old Bailey this year, according to sources close to the investigation.

It is understood that two or three cases concerning men originally from Eastern Europe are close to being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service on the basis that the police believe they have a reasonable chance of a conviction. The Director of Public Prosecutions will then consult the Attorney General and decide whether it is in the public interest to proceed in view of the age and infirmity of the suspects, who are all over 70.

More than pounds 5m has been set aside for legal aid for their defence.

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. Since then the list has grown to more than 100, of whom 30 are understood still to be under active investigation by Scotland Yard.

The suspects are all men who fled to Britain after the war with the refugees from countries that had been occupied by the Germans. They subsequently took British citizenship, and for almost 50 years their war records went unquestioned.

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 separate investigating units in England and Wales and in Scotland, which have different legal codes. Before the units began their task, the most likely first case to come before a court had been Anton Gecas, 77, a former Lithuanian who became a mining engineer in Scotland.

Mr Gecas had been a lieutenant in a Lithuanian police battalion used by the Germans to wipe out Jews in several countries. He sued Scottish Television in 1992 for a programme detailing alleged war crimes, but lost his action, with the judge saying he was 'clearly satisfied' that Mr Gecas was a mass murderer.

But 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 burden of proof in a criminal action is 'beyond reasonable doubt', while a libel case is decided on 'the balance of probabilities'.

The Scotland Yard unit has already spent more than pounds 3m investigating suspects. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, secured funding for one more year, to April 1995, but with the proviso that it must deliver results in court by then.

The police report into allegations that British soldiers committed war crimes during the 1982 Falklands conflict was handed yesterday to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will consider whether to bring criminal charges.