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British Parliament Clears the Way for Prosecution of War Criminals

December 14, 1989
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After months of debate and discussion in the press and Parliament alike, Britain has decided to allow the prosecution of Nazi war criminals on its own soil.

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night to allow British courts to try alleged Nazi war criminals living in this country.

A Cabinet committee, headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, will meet shortly after the Christmas recess to draft the necessary legislation to put the motion into effect.

The 348-123 free vote, which followed a highly charged debate, reflected support that transcended party differences.

Thatcher, who is the Tory leader, and Neil Kinnock, head of the opposition Labor Party, both voted for the measure.

It was introduced by Sir Bernard Braine of the Conservative Party, who observed, “We are the last of the Allied powers to bring war criminals to justice.”

Technically, the vote was on a motion to accept the recommendations of a Home Office war-crimes inquiry panel that suspected war criminals found in Britain should be brought to justice. The investigation found sufficient evidence against at least three individuals to warrant criminal prosecution.

The inquiry was conducted by Sir Thomas Hetherington, the former director of public prosecutions, and William Chalmers, former crown agent for Scotland.

They described the vote as “historic” and welcomed the results.


But it was only the first step toward conducting war-crimes trials in Britain.

A clear majority of the House of Lords spoke in opposition to the legislation last week, despite an eloquent plea in its favor by one of their fellows, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth.

Their position will have to be taken into account by the government.

It was echoed by speakers in the House of Commons who opposed the bill. Some professed to fear a rise of anti-Semitism in Britain if Nazi war criminals are put on trial here.

Others found distasteful the idea of placing elderly men in the dock for alleged acts committed more than 40 years ago.

But such views were very much in the minority. During the highly emotional debate, speaker after speaker stressed the nature of the crimes in question and argued that they are made no less horrendous with the passage of time.

“Mass murders are as abhorrent now as on the day they were committed,” Sir Bernard declared in introducing the bill.

“We are talking about the slaughter of whole communities, murders which were premeditated and planned, and had nothing to do with killing in the heat of battle,” he said.

He was supported by Home Secretary David Waddington. “With crimes as terrible as these, it should never be too late to prosecute,” he told the House.

Greville Janner of the Labor Party, a former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, rejected arguments that it would be hard to identify alleged war criminals so many years after the fact.

It is not possible to forget “the face of the person who tortured you or who snatched your baby and thrown him in a pit,” said Janner.

“Half my family were killed by the sort of people we are talking about,” he said, adding, “I do not want revenge, just justice.”


Addressing those who feared war-crimes trials would create anti-Semitism, Janner observed, “I believe anti-Semites create anti-Semitism.”

The strongest case against changing the law was made by Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister. He complained that the legislation would be retroactive and would require wide-ranging changes in the rules of evidence.

Another Conservative, Ivor Stanbrook, called the measure a “cruel vendetta,” and urged that it be dropped.

Lord Jakobovits, on the other hand, described the vote in the House of Commons as “a triumph for justice.”

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies said it meant that “those who committed these horrific crimes will not be permitted to get away with it.”

In Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of the first overseas Jewish organizations to comment, said the Parliament’s decision “is not an act of vengeance, but a victory for justice.

“The vote says clearly that crimes against humanity cannot take refuge in the passage of time, it keeps faith with the victims, and demands accountability from the perpetrators.”

A Home Office source said Wednesday that it would not take long to prepare a three- or four-clause bill to enact the report’s recommendations. It could become law by next summer, the source said.

Canada and Australia have recently enacted laws allowing their courts to try suspected war criminals found on their soil.

Canada’s first war-crimes trial is now under way in Toronto, where Imre Finta faces charges for his alleged role in deporting Hungarian Jews to concentration camps.

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