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United Kingdom v. Sawoniuk

Court Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), Great Britain (UK)
Decision title Judgment
Decision date 10 February 2000
  • Anthony Sawoniuk
  • United Kingdom
Categories War crimes
Keywords Belarus, Holocaust, United Kingdom, World War II
Other countries involved
  • Belarus
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Anthony Sawoniuk was born in what is now Belarus, and was a convicted Nazi collaborator who took part in the murder of Jews during WWII. Sawoniuk later moved to the United Kingdom where he became a British citizen, this is why the War Crimes Act could be applied to his case. In the UK Sawoniuk lived freely until his name was found on a KGB list of war criminals in 1993.

After being put on trial for war crimes (murder) against Jews in Domachevo, Sawoniuk was found guilty by a jury in the Old Bailey on two charges and sentenced to life in prison. Sawoniuk appealed this judgment, arguing that the trial contained errors in law, and was therefore not a fair trial. It was mostly asserted, for several reasons, that the two eyewitnesses that were the primary evidence for his conviction were not truthful, and hence that the trial was based on unreliable and insufficient evidence. However, on 10 February 2000, the Court dismissed his appeal, judging that sufficient measures were taken by the trial judge to ensure a fair trial. In 2005 Sawoniuk died while in prison.

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Procedural history

After World War II Sawoniuk moved to the UK where he became a British citizen. Sawoniuk lived freely in the UK until 1993 when his name was found on a KGB list of war criminals.

Sawoniuk has previously been convicted of murder (violations of laws and customs of war) at the Central Criminal Court in London (not accessible online).

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Related developments

In November 2005 Sawoniuk died while in prison, see ‘Nazi War Criminal Sawoniuk Dies in Jail’, The Guardian, 7 November 2005.

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Legally relevant facts

The crimes of which Sawoniuk has been accused took place in 1942, in Domachevo, in the south west of Belarus. Domachevo was under German occupation at that time. The victims were civilians of the Jewish population and Sawoniuk was alleged to be “a willing executioner of Nazi policy” (p. 1).

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Core legal questions

  • Does the English Court have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-English citizens?
  • Since the conviction was based primarily on two eye-witnesses, regarding events that took place more than fifty years ago, was the judgment based on a fair trial, or has there been an error in law?
  • Is the identification by a witness still reliable after fifty-six years?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Section 1 (in particular) of the War Crimes Act 1991.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Court followed the trial judge’s line of reasoning that the time between the crime and the trial (a period of more than fifty years) does not necessarily preclude the eyewitnesses’ evidence. The court further noted that the trial judge could conclude “that any points the appellant might have to make about the reliability of the identification evidence (…) could be fairly accommodated within the confines of the trial process.” Also the factual context surrounding the events at the time had, according to the court, been correctly addressed (p. 9).

The Court furthermore determined that the trial judge had gone to sufficient lengths to make sure the jury was aware of the fact that since the appellant had been implicated in other acts of violence against the Jewish population he was not more likely to have committed these specific offences. P. 10. Therefore, given the unique circumstances of the case, the court concluded that the jury was in an advantageous position, having been able to visit the site and hear the evidence, to form a reliable judgment. The court therefore saw no reason to question the soundness of the trial judge’s judgment (p. 17).

Lastly, regarding the issue of identification of the accused by the witnesses, the Court determines that it was not a case of an identification made fifty-six years after the event, but one of contemporaneous recognition to which the witness was deposed after that lapse of time. The witness is therefore a reliable source of evidence (p. 17).

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Further analysis

  • N. Kelly & G. Lacey, Modern World History for OCR Specification 1937, Heinemann Educational Publishers, Oxford: 2001, p. 131.
  • R. Cryer, Prosecuting International Crimes: Selectivity and the International Criminal Law Regime, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2005, p. 60.

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

  • Director of Public Prosecutions v. P (1991) (not accessible online); 
  • R. v. Central Criminal Court, ex parte Randle & Pottle (not accessible online); 
  • King's/Queen's Bench Division Court of Appeals, R. v. Turnbull, Judgment, 6 July 1976;
  • R. v. Galbraith (not accessible online);
  • Tan v. Cameron.

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Additional materials