LONDON — SHOULD people living in Britain who are accused of Nazi war crimes committed half a century ago be brought to trial? The question will be decided by the House of Commons, which is being pressed to pass legislation that would allow prosecutions to go ahead.
The two co-chairmen of a committee that has carried out an official investigation of suspected war criminals living in Britain have recommended prosecution of three people said to have committed war crimes, and further investigation of more than 100 other cases.
Sir Thomas Hetherington, one of the committee's co-chairmen, and a former director of public prosecutions, told an international war crimes conference in London that retrospective legislation was justified. He said many of the suspects were people of advanced years (some are in their 80s), and that therefore it was necessary to decide quickly whether to prosecute them.
All are East Europeans or from the Baltic states. They arrived in Britain after World War II, claiming to be refugees from the Soviet Union.
The official report says: ``The crimes committed are so monstrous that they cannot be condoned. Prosecution of these people could act as a deterrent in future wars. To take no action would be to taint the UK with the slur of being a haven for war criminals.''
International pressure has been an important factor in forcing Britain to deal with the fact that it has suspected war criminals among its citizens.
Canada is investigating more than 200 suspects. In Australia, more than 600 cases are being looked into.
Neal Sher, the official responsible for hunting down Nazis in the United States, told the conference here that 1,200 suspects had been brought to his attention. Thirty had been deported, including the Ukrainian John Demjanjuk, who is appealing the death sentence imposed on him in Israel.
Klaus Barbie, the ``butcher of Lyon,'' was extradited to France from Bolivia in 1983. Four years later he was jailed for life.
Sir Thomas says that with the rest of the world still vigorously pursuing Nazi war criminals, Britain cannot ignore the problem. ``It would be justifiable to modify the law so that the law can take its course,'' he said.
Parliamentary consideration of the matter however is certain to be controversial. Members of Parliament (MPs) will vote their conscience rather than along party lines, and there are sharp divisions of opinion over going so far back into the past in pursuit of Nazi war criminals.
Greville Janner, a leading Jewish MP and secretary of an all-party parliamentary war crimes group, strongly advocates prosecution of suspected Nazis living in Britain.
But Merlyn Rees, a former Labour Home Secretary, believes many younger MPs will hesitate before supporting retrospective legislation. Mr. Rees says: ``They will say that it all happened 50 years ago.''
Leading government ministers however appear to favor changing the law. John Patten, a Home Office minister, told the London conference: ``We should forgive, but we should certainly not forget.''
Douglas Hurd, home secretary until a month ago and now foreign secretary, has said, ``The allegations are not about actions committed in the heat of war. They concern individuals allegedly holding quite senior positions in paramilitary units in territories occupied by the German forces, whose task was the systematic murder of civilians.''