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When Ivan Polyukhovich shot himself on 29 July 1990, one day before his committal hearing for alleged war crimes under the Nazi regime in Ukraine, all the work that had gone into preparing the case against him stood to go to waste.

Polyukhovich had immigrated to Adelaide in 1949 and was arrested 41 years later, charged with several counts under Australia’s War Crimes Act, including taking part in the mass killing of 850 people. The gun shot did not prove fatal for Polyukhovich, and in June 1993 he was acquitted of all charges.

GREG JAMES QC was involved in prosecuting from 1988 to 1993 this and two other Nazi war crime cases – the only three cases brought against suspected Nazi war criminals in Australia.

In February 1987, the Special Investigations Unit within the Attorney-General’s Department was set up to investigate and recommend possible prosecutions to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Grant Niemann, one of the Deputy Directors and I were retained by the DPP to advise on and prosecute charges against persons referred to the Director by the Special Investigation Unit and, in particular, to prosecute the charges against Ivan Polyukhovich and Heinrich Wagner. A third person, Mikolay Berezowsky, was charged but the Magistrate did not commit him for trial. Legal aid was granted by the government to allow all three accused the highest level of legal representation. 

Polyukhovich exercised his right to give no evidence. He remained mute. He had earlier denied to police that he had committed any offences. A number of the charges against Polyukhovich could not be sustained due to the effects of time, particularly the death of witnesses. It was remarkable that the Special Investigation Unit was able to locate and obtain the testimony of as many witnesses as it did. 

The charges included that relating to Polyukhovich’s involvement with a pit killing in the village of Serniki. He was accused of escorting three people to the pit and shooting them personally. Eyewitness evidence was called. However, by the time of trial only one eyewitness was alive and able to testify to Polyukhovich’s actions at the pit. The important issue that arose at trial was whether the eyewitness had accurately identified Polyukhovich. 

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