War crimes hearing set to cost pounds 1.5m

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Britain's first war crimes prosecution begins this week in Surrey, half a century after the end of the Nazi campaign of mass murder.

In the dock on Thursday in Dorking will be Szymon Serafinowicz, 85, a widower from Banstead, Surrey, who is facing four charges under the War Crimes Act of murdering Jews in Belarus - part of the former Soviet Union - in 1941. The 1991 #Act allows people now living in Britain to be prosecuted for alleged offences committed in German-occupied territories during the Second World War.

Mr Serafinowicz has already been remanded three times on bail by Epsom magistrates. On his first appearance he was accompanied by an interpreter.

Committal proceedings at Dorking magistrates' court, expected to last into April and to cost at least pounds 1.5m, are only necessary because of a Home Office error in drafting the War Crimes Act. The Act included a clause allowing the committal stage to be missed out, because of the advanced age of potential witnesses and defendants, but the drafting error meant the change did not take effect.

As well as the extra cost, the mistake means witnesses may have to be flown into Britain twice to give the same evidence about harrowing events long in the past, and if the case is committed for trial at the Old Bailey, there will be a further long delay.

The entire Dorking court building has been taken over for the event, with an annexe linked by closed-circuit television to house reporters and historians from around the world, facilities for court artists and even a media handbook.

This will be one of the last "old-style" committal proceedings, where prosecution witnesses give evidence in person and can be cross-examined by the defence. In most committals now, magistrates assess whether there is a prima facie case by reading the witnesses' written statements. Later this year the Home Office plans to abolish full committals.

Despite the facilities laid on for the media, nothing except the basic details of the charges can be reported for months ahead. If the case is not committed for trial, the full proceedings can be reported as soon as the decision is made. If the case is passed up to the Old Bailey, everything remains confidential until the end of a trial, to prevent a jury being prejudiced by what they might read.

The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Peter Badge, will hear the case. Two top QCs have been retained; John Nutting by the prosecution, and William Clegg by Mr Serafinowicz, who is legally aided.

Court authorities have been told to expect up to 26 witnesses, many from abroad. The Crown Prosecution Service is likely to have to arrange for interpreters into three or more languages, and some witnesses may only be fit enough to give evidence for short periods before needing an adjournment to rest.

Previous commitments mean there will be only one day's hearing this week, then a resumption in mid-February for two weeks, before adjourning again until mid-April.