War crimes case thrown into chaos

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The Independent Online
Britain's first prosecution under the War Crimes Act has been thrown into chaos by a Home Office mistake which may delay the start of the trial by a year.

The case involves events of more than 50 years ago, in eastern Europe, and any delay increases the risk of the case collapsing if key elderly witnesses, or the defendant, become too ill to carry on.

The defendant, Szymon Serafinowicz, 84, of Banstead, Surrey, appeared before Epsom magistrates on 13 July, charged on four counts of murder in Belarus, and was remanded on bail until next Thursday.

Police have spent millions investigating similar cases but, so far, no one else has been charged. The War Crimes Act allows for prosecution for murders in German-occupied territories before 1945 even if the accused were not British citizens at the time of the alleged offences.

The Act, passed in 1991, includes a provision for trials to move straight to the Old Bailey, missing out the committal stage in which magistrates decide if the evidence against the defendant is sufficient to go ahead with a trial. But the necessary change to the rules has never been brought into force.

The Home Office had planned to bring in an order this July, under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which would abolish committal proceedings in all cases. But the Home Office has been accused of failure to consult adequately, and the plan has run into opposition from the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The order will not now become law this year, and will be almost certainly too late for the Serafinowicz case.

The defence in any criminal case has the option of a "paper" committal, decided on statements, or a full "old style" committal where witnesses are called. The War Crimes Act allows witnesses who are too old to travel to give evidence by live satellite-link television.

Mr Serafinowicz, a retired carpenter and builder from Belarus, has said he will deny the charges strenuously. He is understood to be planning to ask for a full committal. That is unlikely before next January or February, and will probably last a month or more. He has been granted legal aid. The four charges facing Mr Serafinowicz, now a British citizen, are that on 27 October and 4 November 1941, in the village of Turets, on 9 November 1941 in Mir, and between 31 December 1941 and 1 March 1942 he murdered unknown Jews in circumstances constituting a violation of laws and customs of war.

A Latvian who was the focus of the second-strongest case on Scotland Yard's list died this year. Harry Svikeris, 83, suffered a heart attack and was found dead at his home in Milton Keynes. The Scotland Yard War Crimes Unit, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, is investigating a further 14 suspects.

In a statement read outside the court in July, Mr Serafinowicz's solicitor, Nicholas Bowers, said: "He is now determined to have these matters brought to trial so he will have the opportunity to clear his name and live out the remainder of his years in peace."