Hungary says ex-soldier Charles Zentai suspected of beating the teen to death in Budapest in 1944 for failing to wear a star identifying him as a Jew; Zentai, now an Australian citizen, has denied the allegation, and has been fighting extradition since 2005.
By Dan Goldberg and Ofer Aderet
Haaretz, August 15, 2012
The long-awaited ruling, handed down in Canberra on Wednesday, dismissed an appeal by the federal government into an earlier Federal Court judgment that Zentai could not be extradited because war crimes was not an offense in Hungary on November 8, 1944 – the date Zentai is accused of helping murder Peter Balazs in Budapest.
Zentai, who was a cadet sergeant in the pro-Nazi Hungarian army, has vehemently denied he helped murder the 18-year-old Jew for not wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David before dumping his body in the River Danube. The 90-year-old Perth pensioner, who was first arrested by Australian Federal Police in 2005, claimed he left Budapest the day prior to Balazs’s murder.
Charles Zentai's Australian landing card
In their 5-1 verdict, the judges argued that the extradition could not be approved because the Hungarian authorities had requested Zentai’s surrender for war crimes, which was not an offense under Hungarian law at the time.
“I'm just overwhelmed,” Zentai told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Perth. “I've been so stressed, the last few days in particular.”
But the judgment was met by a chorus of condemnation.
Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator of the governing Labor Party, slammed the verdict as “appalling.”
In a speech to be delivered in parliament in Canberra tonight, Danby said Hungary enacted laws in 1945 to retrospectively make war crimes an offense.
Danby said he had already approached the Hungarian ambassador to ask whether officials in Budapest will seek Zentai’s extradition for murder.
Israel’s chief Nazi hunter, Dr Efraim Zuroff, who has pursued this case since 2005 when the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance helped flush out Zentai’s whereabouts, said the decision was “a travesty of justice.”
But he said the decision was “not a reflection of Zentai’s guilt or innocence.”
Australia has “totally failed” on the issue of Nazi war criminals, he said. “It pains me to criticize Australia. But it has officially confirmed its status as the worst of the Anglo countries which sought to take legal action against Nazi war criminals.”
He noted that in 1987 Australia’s government opened a Special Investigations Unit and investigated 841 suspects but it closed five years later without a single conviction.
“That was a disaster and we’re paying the price to this day,” Zuroff said. “The only people who benefitted were the Nazi war criminals whose haven in Australia proved to be the right choice.”
But he vowed the fight for justice is not over, even if Zentai – believed to be Australia’s last Nazi war crimes suspect – will not be extradited. “Last month we caught a big Nazi criminal,” he said referring to Laszlo Csatary. “It may be over in Australia but it ain’t over elsewhere.”
Marika Weinberger, 84, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor whose mother and two grandmothers perished at Auschwitz, said:
She said although she was a “proud Australian” governments on both sides of politics had “never spoken up hard enough.
“We remain the only country who could have and should have” convicted Nazi war criminals. “This is why it hurts. I can’t understand it.
Anna Berger, the president of the Australian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, described the decision as “regrettable.” But she said as Australian citizens “we are loyal and grateful to this country for the shelter it gave us and we respect the laws of the land even if we don’t like the decision.”
Dr Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said in a statement:
The federal government approved Zentai's extradition to Hungary in 2009 but the decision was overturned on appeal in the Federal Court in 2011. The government then sought the ruling of the justices of nation's highest court, who reserved their decision in March before dismissing the appeal today.
Zentai is not the first alleged Nazi war criminal to avoid facing his accusers. Konrads Kalejs, an alleged leader of Latvia’s notorious Arajs Kommando unit, accused of murdering thousands of Jews and gypsies in Riga in 1942-43, died in Australia in 2001 while awaiting a court decision of whether he should be extradited to his native Latvia.