Britain’s First War Crimes Trial Ends with Conviction of Retiree
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Britain’s First War Crimes Trial Ends with Conviction of Retiree

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British Jewish leaders are hailing the two life sentences given a man convicted of murdering 18 Jews during World War II while serving in a Nazi-allied police unit in Belarus during World War II.

After a two-month trial in Britain’s first war crimes prosecution, Anthony Sawoniuk, a 78-year-old retired British railroad ticket collector, was convicted last week on two separate charges: murdering two Jewish men and a woman; and shooting 15 women with a submachine gun after ordering them to strip and face an open grave.

Sawoniuk, who settled into a life of domestic anonymity here in 1946 after fleeing with the retreating German soldiers from his home in the Belarus village of Domachevo, was also implicated in, though not charged with, the murders of children and an infant, as well as having taken part in a Yom Kippur massacre.

Lord Janner of Braunstone, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said he was “very glad that this murderer has received a fair trial and that justice was both done and seen to be done.

“The Nazis gave neither trial nor justice to their victims,” he said.

“I am sorry that so many other war criminals who sadly found refuge in Britain have so far escaped justice.”

But he added: “The trial is a symbolic beacon, relighting memories of the hideous barbarity of the past.”

The trial followed extensive investigations by a team of police and historians that was set up after the landmark War Crimes Act was passed in 1991.

The law, which provoked a wave of controversy among senior members of the legal community because it was enacted after the crimes were committed, gave British courts jurisdiction over non-Britons for crimes against non-Britons on non- British soil under Nazi occupation.

The investigation has cost a total of some $18 million, and although one other case is still under investigation, it is considered highly unlikely that further trials will be held.

Lord Janner, who helped steer the War Crimes Act through Parliament, defended the expense.

“We don’t count the cost of murder trials — it is a question of justice,” he said.

Thousands of men from Eastern and Central Europe were allowed to enter Britain virtually unscreened in the immediate aftermath of the war in order to ease a critical labor shortage.

Many, like Sawoniuk — a paradigm of what is described as the “small fish” of the Holocaust — are now believed to have used this opportunity to escape from their hometowns and villages after perpetrating war crimes.

The eight-year investigation into possible war criminals in Britain has involved 376 suspects. Of those, 117 were dead; and in an additional 257 cases, investigations were dropped either because of insufficient evidence or because the suspects were too old and too ill to be questioned and prosecuted.

Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella body for the Jewish community, cited the latest headlines from Kosovo as he applauded Sawoniuk’s April 1 conviction.

“This should stand as a warning to those who now engage in war crimes, whether in Yugoslavia or elsewhere.

“Justice has finally been secured for the Jewish inhabitants of Domachevo,” Nagler added. “His trial and conviction have justified the cost and effort involved in bringing war criminals to justice.”

Leading Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said it is not pleasant to take an elderly man to court, “but it is even less pleasant to think of the murders of which he is accused going unpunished.

“Mere passage of time does not make a person less guilty.”

Sawoniuk, the illiterate, illegitimate son of a washerwoman in Domachevo, volunteered to join the local police force established by the Nazis who occupied the predominantly Jewish, prosperous spa village in 1941.

Virtually all of the 2,900 Jews in the village were rounded up and shot on Sept. 19 — Yom Kippur — 1942.

In the aftermath of the slaughter, Sawoniuk headed a unit that was assigned to search for and kill those Jews who escaped the roundup.

During the trial, the judge instructed the jury to drop two other charges because of a lack of evidence.

The verdict came as Jews throughout the world were celebrating Passover, the festival of the Exodus from Egypt.

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