Alex Constantine - January 4, 2014
Unit failed to nail war criminals
January 2, 2014
NERVOUSNESS about revelations of Nazi war criminals hiding in Australia prompted the Hawke government to establish a special investigative unit that was meant to operate "discretely" to bring them to justice.
Expecting criticism of such action "from some ethnic communities," the government established the unit in 1987 and gave powers to investigate alleged World War II criminals, cabinet papers show.
The unit would then present evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring them to justice "on the same basis as an ordinary criminal trial".
"The investigating and prosecuting functions should be kept discrete," cabinet determined during a February 1987 meeting.
Five years after its establishment, the controversial unit was shut down by the Keating government in 1992. It failed to produce a single successful prosecution.
Its establishment stemmed from a report by Andrew Menzies, a former deputy secretary in the Attorney-General's Department who was appointed by cabinet in 1986 to investigate allegations that Australian authorities had helped resettle Nazi war criminals.
Along with his final report -- which largely cleared Australian officials of wrongdoing but criticised immigration checking procedures -- he also provided a secret list of 70 individuals he believed should be investigated.
A number of them were from Eastern Europe, the subsequent cabinet meeting heard, and he had recommended Australia extradite individuals, on request, to the countries where their war crimes were allegedly committed.
The attorney-general, Lionel Bowen, expressed concern over the recommendations on extradition, arguing he should not give up his powers of discretion when determining such requests.
"The report indicates that most of the allegations requiring investigation relate to events which occurred in Eastern Europe," he told cabinet.
"I am concerned at the prospect of extraditing persons to countries with markedly different judicial systems nor would I wish Australia's program of extradition treaty negotiations, covering all criminal activity, to be determined by considerations relating to only one area of criminal activity. In my view, a better approach would be to prosecute alleged war criminals in Australia."
Mr Bowen said there would be exceptions if countries such as West Germany or Israel were making requests under extradition treaties already in place, but he would still maintain "absolute discretion" to refuse them.