War crimes trial may follow ruling: The libel action by Anton Gecas against a TV company that described him as a mass murderer was seen as a test case

A SCOTTISH judge's ruling yesterday that Scottish Television did not libel Anton Gecas when it described him as a mass murderer clears the way for the first prosecutions under the War Crimes Act. About 90 elderly suspects are still under police investigation.

Senior law officials in England and Scotland had been watching carefully to see how evidence which looked strong on paper would stand up in a court. Although the burden of proof required is less in a civil case than a criminal one - 'on balance of probabilities' rather than 'beyond reasonable doubt' - there is no doubt the Gecas libel action was seen as a test case around the world. When war crimes investigators met at a conference last year, they agreed that the Gecas case was of central importance.

After the passage of the War Crimes Act against the opposition of the House of Lords last year, specialist War Crimes Units were set up in England and Scotland (which has a different legal code). The Act brought new categories of criminal under the jurisdiction of British courts for the first time.

Previously murder or manslaughter could only be punished in Britain if the crimes had taken place on British territory, or if the criminals had been British citizens when the offences took place. The criminals drawn into the net by the new laws were those who had committed crimes in German occupied territories during the Second World War and who had subsequently become British citizens.

The large number in such categories and the horror of the crimes they are alleged to have committed shocked successive Home Secretaries after they were forced to confront the issue for the first time in decades by the arrival in Britain in 1986 of a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles with a list of 17 suspects.

Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, was at first sceptical, insisting there was nothing that could be done under British law and that extradition to eastern Europe was unacceptable because countries there still had the death penalty. But he offered to see if the men on the list were still alive. Some were and the Wiesenthal Centre, and others, produced more names.

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

In a debate in Parliament on 9 July, Charles Wardle, a Home Office minister, said there were 92 cases under investigation in England and Wales, out of allegations made since 1987 against 355 men. It is not known whether his totals include more than 30 men from Mr Gecas's company, uncovered by The Independent in the Sikorski Polish military archive in London.

The Government has set aside more than pounds 10m annually to administer the War Crimes Act.

Neither police unit will comment on progress, but the Scots are believed to have completed their inquiries into Mr Gecas and the English have completed files on three men for the Director of Public Prosecution. At least one of the men is a Latvian.

The Lord Advocate in Scotland and the Attorney General in England have to decide whether it is in the public interest to prosecute in each case, bearing in mind the age of witnesses and accused and the distances involved. There is a special procedure under the War Crimes Act to allow the use of what is known as commission evidence, taken by a Briton in the native country of the witnesses. Such evidence was taken successfully in the Gecas case by Lord Milligan from witnesses in Lithuania.

The alleged war criminals came into Britain amid a flood of innocent refugees under a variety of government schemes, but none of them with much vetting, according to David Ceserani, deputy director of the Wiener Library in London, and author of Justice Delayed, a study of the subject published this year.

Using publicly available documents he showed how the attitude of the British government from 1945 to 1950 allowed thousands of potential criminals and collaborators to take refuge in the UK.

He paints a picture of a government that wanted to recruit scientists and sources of intelligence against eastern Europe, needed manpower for its mills, factories and mines, and did not look too closely at whether there were war criminals among them. In any case, many faced certain death in their own countries and the large numbers made detailed screening difficult.

In the five years after the war an estimated 90,000 refugees came to Britain from the Baltics and other countries which had fallen to the Communists.

When captured soldiers from the Baltic states were first considered in December 1945, there was little apparent concern about their war records. Foreign Office documents refer to them as former members of the Wehrmacht (regular army) when many had been in the Waffen SS, which was notorious for wartime atrocities.

The tone of the surviving documents shows the attitude to the refugees and that a search for war criminals was not uppermost. A refugee department official in the Foreign Office, writing in January 1947, was worried that before too long 'other countries will have skimmed the cream of the displaced persons, especially the Balts who are undoubtedly the elite of the refugee problem'.

There was no cross-checking against wanted war criminals and prisoners' own accounts of their war records were not checked.

(Photograph omitted)