Britain Sets Up War Crimes Unit and Will Reintroduce Legislation

The British government has decided to reintroduce the War Crimes Bill in Parliament early next year and, in the meantime, to set up a special unit to begin surveillance of suspected war criminals.

The legislation, which would allow British courts to try alleged Nazi war criminals living in Britain, achieved a resounding victory in the House of Commons on March 19. But it suffered a crushing defeat by the House of Lords on June 5.

A committee of ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has decided to resubmit the legislation, in its original form, to the House of Commons, which would call a vote without further debate.

If necessary, the government will invoke the Parliament Act, which overrules objections by the Lords. But the upper house is considered unlikely to vote down the bill on second reading. If it did, the measure would still go directly to the queen for royal assent.

In any event, the bill would not become law before July 1991, and the first war crimes trials would begin only in the following year.

Meanwhile, the ministerial committee, which convened June 21, has given the go-ahead to a special unit of Scotland Yard to begin surveillance of suspected war criminals.

The whereabouts of at least three who slipped into Britain after the war are known, a senior Home Office source informed the Jewish Chronicle.

The special unit will be headed by Detective Chief Supt. Tony Comben, who will have a staff of nine police officers, as well as historians, lawyers and interpreters.

Although it will have no jurisdiction to investigate allegations of war crimes until the War Crimes Bill becomes law, Comben’s unit will do much of the preliminary legwork.

It will be allowed to investigate the circumstances of the alleged crimes, if not the specific instances, the Home Office source said.

Comben’s job will include gathering historic documentation, some of which is available only abroad. It is understood that full cooperation has been promised by the Soviet Union, where many of the alleged crimes were committed.

The Home Office source said Comben has been given permission discreetly to ensure that the whereabouts of the suspects are known when the trials are ready to begin, possibly early in 1992.

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