Review Blog

Jun 07 2018

A case to answer by David Bevan

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Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 9781862543232
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. Re-released for the 25th anniversary of the trial, A case to answer is a thorough and objective account of the first European war crimes prosecution held in Australia - where a quiet elderly man in Adelaide's suburbs was arrested for participation in the murder and massacre of Jewish civilians in Serniki, a village in Nazi occupied Ukraine.
Amidst political controversy, Australia enacted the War Crimes Amendment Bill in 1988 allowing for the prosecution of European war criminals on Australian soil. And the first case pursued was the case of Ivan Polyukhovich, a Ukrainian forester who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis to kill the Jewish population of Serniki. David Bevan was a court reporter for The Advertiser at the time, and his book is an impartial record of the prosecution and defence - he does not argue a case either way, but carefully records the issues that were encountered by both sides. The book becomes a fascinating document about the collection of evidence and the problems of prosecuting or defending charges made by witnesses from another country, another culture and language, 50 years after the crimes were committed.
Bevan describes how, after many months of investigation, prosecutor Grant Niemann gradually realised the familiarity of the types of issues he had encountered in arguing claims on behalf of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory in the 1980s - problems of cultural misunderstandings, and of concepts and language alien to the white legal system. The Ukrainian witnesses in the war crime case also belonged to an entirely different culture, an essentially oral society. They were fearful of authority and did not understand the procedures of the legal system. Particularly interesting are the problems of translation - the nuances of language that could use the male pronoun for child regardless of gender, where clothing is described as dark or light-coloured rather than a specific colour differentiation, where the term morning implies daylight rather than the hours after midnight, different meanings for the concept 'knowing', and different ways of using yes or no in agreement with a question. These are the kinds of issues discovered by learners of other languages but not part of the experience of an essentially monolingual society and legal system.
The book describes the many legal issues of what constitutes evidence - issues of identification, issues of uncorroborated or varying accounts, as well as the question of how to test the evidence after a period of 50 years when many people had died and most of the village had been destroyed during the war and rebuilt in the following years. Both the prosecuting and defence teams travelled to the Ukraine to uncover the massacre site and to check witness accounts. So much work went into the case, in the pursuit of justice. Whether justice could ever be achieved remains in question.
I would recommend this books for students of law, history, and of language and culture studies. It is a fascinating record that raises many questions for discussion.
Helen Eddy

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