A 97-year-old Hungarian who once topped the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s (SWC) list of most wanted Nazi criminals has walked free from a Budapest municipal court after being cleared of ordering the execution of more than 30 Jews and Serbs in 1942.
Serbian Jews on Monday urged an appeal over Sandor Kepiro acquittal, but it is unknown what action the prosecution will take.
“It is not unexpected from a Hungarian society which is not yet mature enough to face its past,” said Ana Frenkel of the SWC and a leader of the Jewish community in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Frenkel told the AFP news agency that the centre would continue its fight to have Kepiro convicted and would push for an appeal to the ruling.
“We are not satisfied and we expect the Hunagrian prosecutor to file an appeal,” Bruno Vekaric, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor, told the Tanjug news agency.
The defence had said there was no tangible evidence that Kepiro had carried out war crimes, while the prosecution’s case rested heavily on old testimonies and verdicts from previous trials in the 1940s.
“There are cases where there is no access to direct evidence as the direct witnesses are no longer alive,” Zsolt Falvai, a prosecutor, said in a last statement on Monday.
“We are obliged to base our case on written proof, documents, even if these are old testimonies.”
During the trial several experts cast doubts on the authenticity of these documents, many of which were incomplete or contained translation mistakes.
The defence also claimed that testimonies made in front of communist courts could have been coerced.
‘I never killed’
Kepiro, who appeared in court on Monday, said in a last statement before the verdict was read out: “I am innocent, I never killed, I never robbed”.
He was allowed to leave the court shortly thereafter, and was returned to the hospital where he has been kept for a week after receiving unsuitable medication.
The reasoning for the verdict was read out in court and was to continue on Tuesday, without Kepiro, whose presence is no longer needed as he had been found not guilty, the judge said.
The judge also announced that the costs of the trial – about $20,000 – will be covered by the state.
The trial, which started on May 5, proceeded slowly as the judge ordered two 45-minute sessions a day to accommodate Kepiro’s health issues and is also hard of hearing.
Fled to Argentina
The one-time Hungarian gendarmerie captain faced a life sentence for his alleged participation in a raid by Hungarian forces in Novi Sad, now in Serbia, on January 21-23, 1942, in which more than 1,200 Jews and Serbs were murdered.
Specifically, he was accused of ordering the round-up and execution of 36 Jews and Serbs as head of one of the patrols involved in the raid.
Kepiro was found guilty of the crimes in Novi Sad twice in absentia: first in 1944 to 10 years in prison, a sentence that was quashed a few months later by the fascist government, and then again in 1946, this time under communism.
However, he avoided prison by fleeing to Argentina where he remained for half a century before returning to Budapest in 1996.
Efraim Zuroff, the head of the SWC, tracked him down to the city 10 years later.
With proceedings against another Nazi war criminal, Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, closed in Germany in May, Zuroff had earlier predicted that the Kepiro trial could be one of the last of its kind.
Former Nazi camp guard Demjanjuk, 91, was sentenced to five years in prison for aiding the murder of nearly 30,000 Jews but was released from custody because of his age.