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Can a spy be too old to prosecute?

Eighty-seven-year-old great-grandmother Melita Norwood has admitted her role as a spy, but is she too old to be prosecuted?

Background ¦ Your reaction

The Background:

Eighty-seven-year-old Melita Norwood spied for the Soviet Union for four decades, passing on crucial information about Britain's nuclear secrets. Although she retired in the early 1970's, her secret life has now been made public. Mrs Norwood says she believed in the Communist ideology, and did what she thought was right.

A decision has already been taken that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. The opposition Conservative party is demanding a detailed statement from the government, explaining what it knew about the affair.

Should Mrs Norwood be made to answer for her treachery to her country, or is it too late to prosecute this frail grandmother?

Background ¦ Your reaction

Your Reaction:

Read the first comments we received

I think she should be prosecuted - this has nothing to do with age. The other thing is punishment - it wouldn't be ethical to punish a 90-year-old person with imprisonment. She is clearly too old to be imprisoned, but the conviction for the crime of treason which is most certainly accompanied by public condemnation is a punishment enough for Melita Norwood.
Kadrika, Estonia

I agree with Amab Banerji's thoughtful comment. It's over, we won, they lost. Forget it. Let dead yesterdays go and forget about revenge. We have much more important problems to resolve TODAY.
Ty Meissner, USA

Mrs Norwood should be tried and if found guilty, sent to prison for the remainder of her days. Often, the elderly are not prosecuted for the reason that their advanced years suggests feebleness and slow-wittedness. In her case, she seems to be healthy and quite sharp, two things which would weigh in favour of prosecution. Norwood betrayed her country and the West by making it possible for the most murderous regime in human history to hold the spectre of massive annihilation over its captive peoples. Her bleating about affordable health care in the face of her monstrous crimes is simply laughable. She is totally remorseless and should be dealt with severely.
Layne, US

Some comments here make me slightly confused. Please stop talking about deportation, you cannot deport your own citizens! (It is against the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and why should Russia accept her?). Furthermore, why send her to Russia? She spied for the Soviet Union, a country which, in case you have not noticed, ceased to exist in 1991. Finally; exactly what crimes will be deterred by prosecuting her?
Magnus Öhman, Sweden

As a liberal I have to agree - if someone betrays their own government, they know they can be punished for it, she doesn't even seem to regret what she did - so let her rot in jail.
Morgan, USA

This woman is a traitor, and a disgrace. She should be prosecuted and jailed for the rest of her life, and all her assets seized. Age is not the issue here at all.
Rob Holman, England

I think the question is not 'should a traitor be prosecuted?' but 'what punishment for an eighty seven years old traitor?' A life of betrayal cannot go unpunished no matter what the excuses. This person has enough intelligence to spy and would know the consequences of discovery. Exile? let the woman live in the 'new Russia' or even better a custodial sentence and then exile.
Henry Ponsonby-Smythe, England

The cold war is over, it would serve no useful purpose to dig up old tales. All countries have spies, we have ours. Spying is a well established profession.
Roger, UK

Spying her own country activities and giving valuable information to enemy Country is a bigger crime against a State than killing a fellow citizen (murder). If a woman or man is too old to be brought under the big arm of justice, then spying is also forgivable. But Spying is a big crime, against not just one individual but the entire nation, millions of his/her fellow citizens. It is immoral. One should be brought to justice irrespective of age.
Srinivasu Vallabhapurapu, Japan

It would be cruel to execute this deluded elderly woman. She was duped as many around the world were in believing the Communists were creating a worker's paradise here on earth. It was not until Khruschev confessed the brutal repression under Stalin than many of these victims realised the error of their thinking. A fitting punishment for this woman should be to deport her to what remains of her paradise. Perhaps this would be much more cruel than the death penalty.
Steve B US

If she stole and passed on secrets that meant that the USSR could develop nuclear weapons in the same way that the US did surely she made a vital contribution to the concept of mutually assured destruction which we are told has kept the peace for over 50 years. And as for those who say you are never too old to be responsible for crimes perhaps they should remember that the UK still has a Official Secrets Act that protects people who have and will continue to commit vile acts.
Gordon, Scotland

Mrs Norwood should be charged and tried. I have no particular axe to grind in relation to treachery against one's country: people, even spies, must follow their own conscience. However, the Soviet Union was a vile and murderous regime: it is time some of its supporters and helpers were asked to account for their actions. If Mrs Norwood and other pro-Soviet activists claim that idealism led them to do what they did, fine. But let us also remember that idealism and hope for a better future moved many ordinary people to join other murderous movements. The pleas of "idealism" and "obeying orders" were, rightly enough, never heeded when made by criminals on the Right. It is time the Left was also brought to face justice for its crimes, instead of continuing to hide behind the cloak of idealism.
J.F.Munro, Scotland

No! Whatever your age, illegal means illegal. Treason used to be a hanging crime, now it's prison or deportation.
John C., England

If she decided not to follow the law of land. Let her rot in jail for the rest of her life.
Paul, UK

I think that she should be trailed. She did it for 4 decades. If she was honest, then she had to come out sooner and not when her life is almost over, she has probably got nothing to lose now. She probably wants to go to "heaven" with a clear conscience.
Monique, Holland

I wonder what would have happened if she was caught spying for Hitler? Lucky for her the lefts are in power...I say you can never be too old to be punished for a crime.
Tomasz, England

The UK should arrest and prosecute all known spies no matter how old. Would-be traitors should know that they will never be safe.
Geoff Sutton, USA

This women is just the tip of a very nasty and convoluted iceberg the frozen foundations of which have been donated by all of the major powers of the last century and more. Our focus should be on the equality (or lack thereof) in our judicial system.
Sarah, UK

NO, a thousand times NO. Think of people who have been harmed by this traitor.
S Berooks, USA

She knew when she passed on the information that what she was doing was against the state. She is just lucky she has had her freedom for so long. Now she has been found out of course she should be punished and age should have nothing to do with it.
Jo Short, Australia

Her age, most certainly, works against any prosecution. However, some procedure/inquiry should be set up where she would have to answer questions under oath. As to punishment - a fine of some kind. However, let her not be tossed out into the snow and cold. Any present day or future activist of this type wherever they may be - you may not be so lucky if they get you young enough!!

If a person commits a crime just because a person is old and frail should not prevent justice. Betraying ones country is cowardly and wrong. She should be punished in the same manner as any one else would be.
Cheryl , USA

General Pinochet is not too old. WWII war criminals are not too old. Melita Norwood is not too old. She assisted a country to improve atomic weapons that were aimed back at us. She gave a foreign regime more confidence in its own righteousness, which further threatened us. She decided to ignore the known atrocities, Show Trials and horrendous purges of the Stalin regime and chose that system over our own. She aimed to undermine our own future and help theirs. She made her decision, we should make ours. Prosecute.
Nick, UK

What is all this talk about trying her? She has made a confession and so there would be no expensive or drawn out trial - just a sentence for the crime with all aspects of mitigation taken into account.
Jon Benjamin, UK

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'T'... Treason! There's no way you can go unpunished for that. If you don't uphold the same beliefs as your country, move to one that does, don't spy. Simple.
David, UK

A recent case of a 90-year-old man causing death by dangerous driving was prosecuted and jailed for 1 year without hesitation. Spying is a capital offence...SHE IS NOT TOO OLD !!!
Andy Thomson, Scotland

If she believed in the communist ideals then why does she not now move to a commune in China? Does she not realise that her actions could have led to the end of civilisation? Selling the safety of your nation is the worst crime possible. And she should be put on trial for treason.
A. McAuley, Hong Kong

During the Cold War, we were told that the rationale for possessing nuclear weapons was one of deterrent, via the Mutually Assured Destruction scenario. In that case, Mrs Norwood's actions were vital to world peace in helping to bring about the mutuality of our assured destruction. Rather than prosecute her, at great cost, she surely deserves a medal!
Simon Bayliss, England

Melita Norwood should be prosecuted. She has, on her own admission, committed a crime. Debate as to the reasons or even whether spying should be a crime, is not an issue. When a murder is committed, the murderer is prosecuted. The reasons for the crime can be given as mitigating circumstances and, along with the age and health of the guilty party, can be taken into account, or not, by the judge after the jury has decided as to guilt. And to Tom (Australia), not ALL Brits have adopted a 'cola-culture' ....... how ARE things in the colonies?
Pat, England

Criminals are never late to be prosecuted! Not even when they are one minute away from death. God might punish them but what about humans? Don't they deserve to? And what about all those nazis and dictators that remained free decades and decades because of their age? Was that fair for all their victims? Don't think so...
Elanor, Greece

Frail old lady she now may be, but she was of good health and sound mind when she chose to betray the country that now provides for her in her old age. British citizens have a right to expect justice. She should spend her last days rotting in jail.
Rob Docherty, England

Question: Has she committed a crime? Q: Is the crime punishable? I believe the two answers to these questions are Yes, so on what ground should she be acquitted? Age is just a number and totally irrelevant. She did what she did for decades - I see no amount of remorse coming from her.
Shezza, England

Punish to the full limit of the law. Her crime transcends personal damage to an individual person or persons. She attacked a country and it's system of beliefs. She is an ideological criminal as well as an actual one.
Alan, UK

How many of you would be quite so venomous if it was your granny? How much do you actually know about this story before willing to destroy this woman? Surely we have far more important things going on in the world that need to be sorted?
All this ridiculous talk of comparing her to holocaust persecutors is incredible. The UK is currently freeing known Irish 'activists' in an attempt to gain stability so why not leave this woman alone. Instead, why not focus on sorting out the forces that let this happen in the first place, and have 'hidden' it since they found out many years ago.
Tommy, Scotland

I don't think she should be prosecuted. Not because of her age, but because her actions may have contributed to keeping the Americans in check, and maintaining the balance that has prevented war. If the Soviets had fallen behind, and the US had been the only major Nuclear power, I fear the American world domination trait would have been unbearable. The world is (I fear) much less safe with only one superpower.
Ian Lowe, Scotland, UK

Age has nothing to do with such a heinous crime. It is important that she be prosecuted as an example for other misguided souls.
Bparker, USA

Yes, deport her to one of those countries we all love to visit on holiday, transported in one of those foreign cars we all love to buy, wearing foreign manufactured clothes! In fact, deport all those who don't support "our" country - that includes me! And make sure that those in the secret (?) service who didn't detect her misdemeanours in the first place, and those who then knew about it but did nothing be deported too! If I was so inefficient at MY job I'd have been sacked long ago.
John, UK

Let her be! She is old and frail and anyone trying to compare her with ex-Nazi war-criminals who are still roaming free at geriatric ages do not know what they are talking about. I cannot believe the amount of passť patriotism expressed in this section. The cold war is over, move on. Stop this new-age McArthyism!
Zach, South Africa

Why are we acting so surprised? We were conducting exactly the same king of operation against countries behind the Iron Curtain. As for prosecution, why bother? The regime that these people where working for has fallen, any harm done was done quite some time ago. Why prosecute OAPs? That'll look good in the press...
Dan Laufer, UK

Melita Norwood is not a criminal! She acted with the best intentions, working for a country which believed in providing basic human rights for people, human rights that all people deserve, as she and many others believed and still believe. One man's traitor is another man's dissident: if there is any criminal here it is Mr Mitrokhin as doubtless he has become a wealthy man selling his soul to the West for financial gain. I for one completely respect Ms Norwoods actions!
B McQuade, Ireland

My, my. I'd never have guessed the biggest criminal of all is a petite, sweet old white English lady whom you'd bump into in Tesco and think nothing of.
Salina Christmas, UK

I find it pathetic that jailing this woman is even being considered at the same time convicted criminals with real blood on their hands are being released in Northern Ireland, and indeed are very likely to take part in the governing and policing of that province. Furthermore, Milosevic, Mladic, et al are roaming free, and you want this woman's blood, mainly because she is an easy catch? Let it go - the Cold War is over and we (the Capitalists) won. If you need to be paranoid, at least direct it towards real threats, like the ones knocking on your doors.
R. McNaughton Phillips, USA

I think she should be prosecuted. That means to have an investigation, inquiry, or however it is done in Britain. There should be some mercy in her punishment, as for her age. There has to be a response to this, to be an example for the future. Like others have said she appears to be proud of her treachery.
Russ W, United States of America

I believe this situation is ironic. There is a minimal age of responsibility in law i.e. 10 years, below which a person cannot be held to criminal account. It seems bizarre that we could actually end up with an upper limit, when the awareness of octogenarians can vary so considerably. In this case, I believe the key is motive. This person spied for ideological reasons that now seem so dated in a modern society. Therefore she should not be prosecuted or we risk a flood of prosecutions of misdirected people who were victims of the grip of outdated ideologies.
Jonathan Drake, England

She is a traitor. She should hang.
Rupert Tompkinson-Palmer, UK

Melita Norwood betrayed your country. She, in doing so, betrayed mine and all countries that hold freedom and democracy dear. She betrayed all those who've lost their lives in defence of freedom and democracy. Who knows how many died in gulags as a direct result of her treachery? If she didn't like the political ideals of the country she was so lucky to have been borne in, she could have simply left it behind and joined a potato farm collective and lived out her life in harmony, at one with twisted socialistic dogma. Instead, she chose to remain and be a traitor. And now she's been exposed for all to see. Do the right thing. Hang her by the neck in a public square.
Doug Schultz, USA

I don't care how old you are. If you betray your country you deserve the punishment of a traitor. Or send her here! Good Ole President Clinton will pardon her. I consider her just as much a trader as a terrorist!
Carla, USA

She is not too old to be prosecuted if she is still mentally and physically able to stand trial. If her age is to be taken into account at all, that can be done after she is convicted, at the stage of sentencing or execution of judgement.
Peter, Netherlands

Why, just because these traitors are elderly, should they escape justice. I hope all those that chose to betray their country are called to account.
George Short, Scotland

Prosecute. There is far too much "letting off". I don't care how old the criminal is, if they have acted illegally then prosecute. The government, councils and police need to get back to law enforcement, because if laws are not enforced then there is no deterrent to crime.
Richard W, UK

Is the support for Ms Norwood because of her age or because she spied for the far left. I did not see any support for the Nazi war criminal in his 80s that was prosecuted recently. I also see a lot of people saying age doesn't matter with General Pinochet. So just what are the reasons you don't want to prosecute?
Richard T. Ketchum, USA

Wow, the vitriol in these comments. This woman acted misguidedly following her beliefs. Yes, it is wrong to betray her country. It is also wrong to betray ones beliefs. If she had been a capitalist idealist in Russia at the time and betrayed Russia she would be a heroine in the eyes of many. The cold war is over; she has a wasted life behind her, let that be enough. And please let the jingoist note, the nation state is dead, we now have to kow-tow to the big corporations or haven't they noticed?
Gwyn Jones, France

What are we teaching our children by letting this woman get away with a crime. I agree she should be sent back to the country she spied for with no benefits.
Sheila Cade, USA

The issue should not be about whether or not spying was justified. It should be about whether or not age should provide immunity from prosecution for crimes that have been committed. I think that as long as ones mental faculties are intact they should be able to answer for their actions. Old age should not provide a shield for criminals to hide behind.
Margaret K., U.S.A

Prosecute. The fact that she is old and makes jam does not reduce her freely admitted guilt. She knew she was endangering British lives and shows no remorse. She is a traitor and should be punished in the severest way possible.
Gary Shannon, Romania (English)

I think that we should not put this woman in prison but send her to live in the country she spied for. She should not receive any benefits from this country because we can not say if what she did, didn't cause the deaths of others. Let her live out her days in Russia.
Angela Marshall, UK

The woman is a traitor. She should be prosecuted, and if found guilty, punished accordingly. the police are now using DNA and modern scientific evidence finding techniques to solve old crimes, so would the public want someone found guilty of, say, being a serial killer, go free??
This would give the message that if you cover your crime for long enough, you will be let off. A crime is a crime, and a criminal is a criminal. It is for a judge to decide if punishment, if any, is to be meted out. Not the press/public.
Rob, England

Most of the remarks I read here are typical of the blood-thirsty society we live in. As for comparing a spy with a criminal from the concentration camps...well that`s just inaccurate to put it mildly. It is very easy to look back in time with today's knowledge and experience and judge historical figures. At the time this old lady functioned communism was the new idea that would lead the world to fellowship and help divide the worlds resources more equally... The idea in itself was perfect except for one fatal forgot to consider man's greed, corruption and individuality.
You cannot prosecute and convict a tired old disappointed lady for believing in and supporting an idea and idealism different from the one her country adopted. We don't prosecute the people who dropped the atomic bomb in Japan because we now know how catastrophic it was do we??? Nor do we seem to care for the hundreds who died fighting for freedom against the imperial England...and the ones who killed them. Let's please show the world we are wiser now.
Vivien Cooksley, Austria

So what if she is 87? She didn't care about the elderly who's lives she risked as well the rest of the world's when she divulged top secret information. I can't understand why we don't lock her up for the rest of her life. Spies are spies and should be treated as such. Maybe if she had spied against any other country other than England we would have locked her up, but of course its only England and we know how little England means to this government.
Steve Hanwell, England

Before you decide if Britain should prosecute her you should consider this, how many people died in a Soviet Gulag because of the secrets she stole that may have exposed Anti Communist Russians? How many U.S. and British soldiers died in the Cold War because the Soviets gave stolen NATO weapons schematics to the North Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese? This innocent looking old lady has quite a bit of blood on her hands.
Tom Byrne, USA

To Samuel Heath of Canada : The cold war was not a soccer match. It really was a war between good (not perfect) and evil (perfect). I had the opportunity to experience both. From a moral standpoint Mrs. Norwood helped the evil from the legal one she committed a serious crime which she does not regret. She should be prosecuted the fullest extent of the law.
Pavel Majer, Czech living in the USA

Just as no person is above the law, no person is too old for the law. She is a spy and the agencies have to treat her as one. It is high time prosecuting agencies grew up. Manjunath Jammetige, India

She should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Age doesn't matter. Would I not be prosecuted if I was aged 80 and robbed a bank? She could have potentially lost British lives and she must pay for that.
Drew, UK

If justice is blind then she must be prosecuted. to the fullest extent of the law. We hold a foreign national (i.e.Pinochet) at the cost of millions of dollars because, we fear that his own country will not try him. Then we turn around and do the same thing ourselves. They are both octogenarians, why the double standard? Is it racially motivated because Pinochet is Hispanic?
Martin Irish, USA (English)

I agree with Susan from the USA - if you do the crime you do the time. No matter how many years have gone by, you won't get away with a murder even if 40 years have elapsed
Andy, GB

This century has been marked by the huge ideological battle between free and unfree societies. Those nations that value freedom of thought and communication have won. I believe that free societies are more innovative and dynamic than ones that are unfree. This means that all this spying is a waste of time as individual inventions may be stolen but not the social engine that creates and exploits those advances. The collapse of the Soviet Union underscores this point - they simply couldn't compete and are now, somewhat late in the day, trying to join the party. I think that we should leave this woman alone because clearly her whole life has been a huge waste. I do not think that we should give her a public soap box by launching a criminal prosecution. I don't want to hear any justifications for her treachery, I simply want us to forget this rather silly individual.
Arnab Banerji, UK

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