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17 Dec, 2008 07:49

Suspected war criminals safe in Britain

Lawyers and campaigners say legal loopholes make the UK a safe haven for thousands suspected of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and are pushing for a change in the law.

Most recent Home Office figures reveal that since 2004 more than 1,800 individuals in the UK have been investigated for those types of crime.

Under the International Criminal Court Act those suspected of genocide and other crimes against humanity can be prosecuted in the UK only for acts committed after 2001.

And those suspected of acts of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, fall outside its scope.

Without a change in the law, many will remain immune from prosecution as the suspects cannot be deported or prosecuted in British courts.

“I have little doubt that there are some fugitives in the UK who are here because they like living here and because they believe it is a safe haven for them from their war crimes. And I do not believe that we should be providing such a safe haven,” says Alex Carlile, Liberal Democrat peer and the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism laws.

The release of the figures coincides with an ongoing case at the High Court where four Rwandans, suspected of helping to coordinate the genocide, are fighting extradition to Rwanda.

“When they came here they changed their own names, for example Dr Vincent Bajinya changed to Dr Vincent Browne,” Rwanda’s Ambassador to the UK Claver Gatete says. “So they thought they could get away with it, and being in Europe they thought they could keep appealing if anything happens, and they will never be extradited to Rwanda.”

The men were arrested only after a special agreement was signed between Britain and Rwanda allowing them to be extradited.

The four are now waiting for a remand hearing. But members of the Action Group for Peace and Justice in Rwanda believe that although they should be tried, it should be anywhere but in Rwanda where they would never get a fair trial.

“Historically the UK has been a place where people seek asylum. That’s not a bad thing as they are often seeking asylum from oppressive regimes,” says John Jones, Doughty Street Chambers barrister. “But if you have a human rights law and an asylum law, you can’t have people being sent back to where they will be prosecuted.”

John Jones is specialising in war crimes and extradition. And despite the current problem with the law, he says it’s highly unlikely there will be any changes any time soon.

“It takes a great deal of parliamentary will to push through something as big as a new war crimes act,” Jones says. “And of course the fear is that the UK would become a sort of forum for all war crimes trials as Belgium nearly became – that they’ll come to the UK and they‘ll all start their proceedings here. And that’s what the parliament wants to avoid and the tax payers want to avoid – to become the world’s policeman.”

Experts say, the Rwandan case is a test. If it does appear that the four can’t be tried in the UK but won’t be extradited – they will enjoy total impunity.

And the question is how many suspects living in Britain will thus manage to avoid justice in their home countries.