Historic case signals end of war crime trials

It was a trial that made British legal history – the prosecution of a 78-year-old man accused of murdering Jews during the Holocaust more than 50 years ago and the first war crimes trial ever heard in this country.

For eight weeks, Court 12 at the Old Bailey heard harrowing, horrific evidence of war-time atrocities. The passing years, and the deaths of witnesses and potential accused, could well make it the last.

Fittingly, it involved two of the finest criminal advocates of their generation, arch-rivals in court for the past 25 years or so. Their most famous clash was in the aborted trial of Colin Stagg, accused of murdering Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common.

For the defence sat Bill Clegg QC, the amiable son of a shopkeeper: for the prosecution sat Sir John Nutting QC – old Etonian, son of a baronet and a High Tory MP.

Besides defending Stagg, Clegg has also acted for Michael Stone, who was found guilty of murdering Lynn and Megan Russell – he is appealing that one – and Private Lee Clegg, who was found not guilty second time around of murdering two teenagers in Northern Ireland.

Nutting rushes through his list of cases. As senior treasury counsel, he has prosecuted IRA bombers, corrupt detectives, Stagg, spy Michael Smith and serial killer Colin Ireland. He also defended Jonathan Aitken, with whom he went to school.

Clegg sits in the public restaurant on the second floor of the Old Bailey. He has just finished his closing speech and the relief is etched on his face. He is relaxed but all too aware of his place in history as the barrister responsible for defending Anthony Sawoniuk, accused of killing Jews in Belorussia in 1942.

Clegg had no qualms about taking on the case: “It has been a very harrowing case to conduct and very hard work. But I don’t think I would ever have contemplated not doing it. I have lots of Jewish friends, lots of Jewish members of chambers, but we just look upon it as another case.

“It never crosses your mind not to conduct the case because of the notorious nature of the crime.

“The impact of the evidence is very harrowing. It isn’t easy listening. It is very difficult to cross-examine witnesses effectively in that sort of situation, trying not to alienate the jury, yet still put across the essential points in favour of the defendant.

“You have just got to try and treat the witnesses with every courtesy while at the same time identifying inconsistencies in their mind.”

A leading criminal solicitor is full of praise. “The jury will relate to Bill Clegg,” he says. “He is down to earth. He has the common touch.”

Nutting’s roots, on the other hand, are distinctly highbrow, and the contrast between the two men is there for all to see. Where Clegg is short and a little rotund, Nutting is tall and slim. His hair is long and straggly, his accent plummy, his vocabulary suffused with obtuse phrases and references to laws he clearly thinks everyone should be well aware of.

He is a kind of upmarket version of Kavanagh QC, while Clegg, you perceive, is a kind of downmarket Rumpole. Like Clegg, though, Nutting is a legend in the criminal courts.

The pair have been contesting cases for the past quarter of a century, in trials ranging from the mundane and unreported to those like Stagg and Sawoniuk which took place in the full glare of the media.

Says Nutting of Clegg: “I know him very well and have the greatest possible respect and affection for him.

“It would be quite impossible not to remain friends with Bill Clegg after a case. I have never had a cross word with him in court in 25 years.”

This has been a difficult case for both men. The logistics of trawling through evidence relating to an event alleged to have happened 57 years ago in a country at the other end of Europe present obvious difficulties.

In fact, the Sawoniuk prosecution will almost certainly be the last brought under the War Crimes Act. A high-ranking source at Scotland Yard says: “I would have wished there to be many more prosecutions but we have to live with what evidence we have and in many cases there just isn’t enough. We have more or less run the course.”

Michael Mansfield QC, the high-profile civil liberties and criminal barrister, sees this trial and the Pinochet extradition case as evidence of changing times. “It is all part of the movement towards ensuring that people who commit these crimes should be made accountable,” he says.

“It is not a happy sight having somebody defend themselves many years afterwards but then the Holocaust was not a happy sight either.”

For both Nutting and Clegg, neither of whom will be drawn on the merits of bringing a case 50 years on, this has been a busy eight weeks. Clegg saw his daughter get married – “just as I finished my opening speech for the defence, I went home and finished my wedding speech as the bride’s father” – while Nutting lost his father, Sir Anthony Nutting, former Conservative MP, protege of Anthony Eden and former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, the Mirror had jumped on the fat-cat barrister bandwagon and splashed a story alleging that Nutting charged the Crown Prosecution Service u120 an hour to travel to and from work during the trial.

Nutting is clearly riled by the story. “The Mirror got a totally false story about a dispute between the CPS and myself over the fees,” he says, explaining that the fees were laid down by the then head of the CPS Dame Barbara Mills QC three years ago when another war crimes trial was in the offing. That was aborted because the accused, Semyou Serafimowitz, was judged to be too ill to face trial. He died a few months later.

Nutting continues his tirade against the Mirror and the CPS source who leaked the story. I apologise for bringing up so sensitive a subject. Not at all, says Nutting, ever the gent: “I am glad to have the opportunity of explaining it.”

For Clegg, the notorious cases are – a word he uses frequently – “fascinating”. But defence work, he acknowledges, has its drawbacks.

“You get rubbish mail from lunatics but I have long since ceased to pay attention to that,” he says. “All high-profile cases bring the eccentrics and lunatics out in force and anybody engaged in high-profile work will receive mail – some of it very offensive and some of it supportive, and all of it uniformly ill-informed.”

Clegg’s next stop is The Hague, where he is defending a Serbian, Dusko Tadic, in his appeal against conviction for war crimes committed against Bosnians. Evidently Clegg has a penchant for taking on notorious clients.