Never too late for justice

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The Independent Online
No sooner has the VE Day bunting been put away than more evidence has appeared showing that in the aftermath of victory Britain became a refuge for Nazi collaborators, many implicated in ghastly atrocities. It was a double scandal that Nazi auxiliaries from Eastern Europe were allowed into this country and left untroubled by the fear of retribution for over 40 years. The delay has left us with appalling dilemmas. After half a century should, indeed can, these men be tried? Is it worth the cost? What should be done with elederly suspects if they are found guilty under the 1991 War Crimes Act?

Opponents of war crimes prosecutions maintain that 50 years after the events in question trials cannot be safe. Above all, eyewitnesses cannot be trusted. Yet British trials will not rest on testimony alone. There are stacks of documents in archives in Germany and Eastern Europe that record the activities of the Nazi death squads. Much important testimony comes from officers and men who served with the suspects. Survivors, many of whom lived close by their tormentors for months, have these men's features seared into their memories. Above all, the passage of time does not excuse the offence. Otherwise, we should tell the families of the victims of the many unsolved murders in Northern Ireland that if the killers evade justice for another 20 years they will escape punishment.

Collecting the evidence is certainly costly. But it is despicable that the very people who characterised the 1991 Act as lynch law, and hooted when the Demjanjuk trial collapsed, carp because of the expense. The Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit and Crown Prosecution Service have spared no effort combing Eastern Europe for material and witnesses precisely to ensure these cases are watertight.

Would the critics of war crimes trials say to the families of the Lockerbie victims that there is a cash limit on the search for the murderers of their loved ones?

For decades ignorance about the Holocaust buttressed cynical political opposition to war crimes trials, or indifference to the issues. Many people will be shocked to learn what the Nazis' helpers accomplished and disgusted that they found safe homes in Britain. Yet the survivors don't want history lessons from the dock or show trials: they want justice. Whatever the sentences, should cases come to court, trials will be worthwhile if the alleged killers are called to account. We lit beacons on VE Day to mark the overthrow of a vile tyranny. A war crimes trial in the Old Bailey would shine like a beacon over Bosnia and Rwanda, warning the latest practitioners of genocide that they can expect no forgiveness from us, and that British justice will never relent.

The writer is director of the Wiener library, Britain's largest collection of documents and books on the Holocaust, and author of 'Justice Delayed', a study of how Britian became a refuge for Nazi collaborators after 1945.