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Thursday, June 24, 1999 Published at 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK


Sawoniuk sentencing explained

Should life mean life for Anthony Sawoniuk?

BBC Home and Legal Affairs Correspondent Jon Silverman explains the row over the sentencing of the war criminal Anthony Sawoniuk.

In Britain, the mandatory sentence for murder is life imprisonment. But in every case, the home secretary sets a tariff - that is the minimum amount of time required to satisfy retribution and deterrence.

He takes this decision after receiving the private recommendations of the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice.

[ image: Sawoniuk at the Old Bailey]
Sawoniuk at the Old Bailey
In this case, the trial judge, Mr Justice Potts, is recommending that Anthony Sawoniuk should die in jail.

In his report to the home secretary, he writes: "Given the defendant's age and the nature of the offences, to release him before his death would, in my opinion, defeat the purpose of the War Crimes Act. "

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, says that the judge's view is "plainly a tenable approach to this unique case ". But his own interpretation of the War Crimes Act is rather different.

He writes that the "general deterrence has little part in this sentence and retribution must be moderated when delayed for nearly 60 years and visited on a man approaching the age of 80".

Dispute over WWII criminals

Lord Bingham may well be reflecting the views of many lawyers who do not feel comfortable about prosecuting people for crimes committed so long ago.

Indeed, the current Attorney-General, John Morris, QC, voted against the legislation when it was debated in parliament.

However, MPs overwhelmingly backed the bill and did so in the knowledge that anyone prosecuted under it would inevitably be old and the crimes committed more than half a century ago.

It's now up to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to fix the tariff for Sawoniuk. But he will wait for an appeal hearing - to be heard before the Lord Chief Justice in July - as well as representations from Sawoniuk's lawyers.

Mr Straw has until January 2000 to tell Sawoniuk whether he can expect to die in jail or not.

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