Leading article: Ending impunity for war criminals

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The Independent Online

Whatever the controversies over alleged abuses of the asylum system, most people in this country are proud of its record in offering sanctuary to those fleeing oppression. They would be horrified by the idea that among such claimants are not only people whose case for asylum is flimsy but mass murderers.

Such is the claim put forward by the Aegis Trust, which campaigns against genocide, and which says Britain's failure to properly enforce legislation on war criminals has made it a haven for war-crimes suspects from all over the world.

This country once had a specific war-crimes unit at Scotland Yard but its remit was confined to crimes committed in the Second World War and it was disbanded in the 1990s. Since then ethnic extermination campaigns have returned to the world stage, in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere. In 2006, it was discovered that several suspected killers in the Rwanda slaughter had been living in Britain for years as refugees. After the police arrested four men in 2006, the courts blocked their extradition to Rwanda to face trial.

The Government has not been totally inactive. In 2004, the UK Border Agency was charged with screening entrants and identifying war-crime suspects, as a result of which hundreds of suspects have been refused residency or refugee status. But the agency cannot initiate prosecutions against suspects already in the country and can only submit their names to the police. In spite of having handed over more than 50 names, none have been prosecuted. The explanation was that legal loopholes made it impossible to prosecute war-crimes suspects for acts committed outside this country before 2001 while students and asylum-seekers could not be prosecuted for such acts at all.

As of this week, the Government has closed the former loophole but the law is still not as clear as it should be. This reflects a lack of political will. Police minds are concentrated on terrorism. War criminals are seen as an embarrassment, not a threat. Whether or not a special police war-crimes unit is revived, as the Aegis Trust wants, it is time that any remaining loopholes or ambiguities in the law that render such people immune from prosecution are closed.