Canada’s First War Crimes Trial Ends in Acquittal, to Jews’ Dismay

Last Friday’s acquittal of Imre Finta, the first accused Nazi war criminal to be tried in Canada, was received with deep disappointment by Jewish groups convinced by eyewitness testimony of his guilt.

But their concern was less over the fate of the 77-year-old Hungarian-born Finta than with the possible future reluctance of the Canadian government to press charges against other accused Nazis or Nazi collaborators under Canada’s 3-year-old war crimes legislation.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, urged the Canadian authorities to reaffirm their commitment to pursue all other cases involving Nazi war criminals residing in Canada.

A jury of eight women and four men in Ontario Supreme Court found Finta not guilty on all eight counts brought against him, after deliberating only one day.

The trial had lasted more than six months.

Finta, a captain in the pro-Nazi Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie, was charged with kidnapping, manslaughter and robbery.

Prosecuting attorney Christopher Amerasinghe told reporters that although he was disappointed with the verdict, the trial established that the 1987 legislation was constitutional.

The verdict can be appealed, but that would be up to Canada’s attorney general, Kim Campbell. Under Canadian law, an appeal can be considered only if errors are found in the trial proceedings.

JUDGE CAUTIONED JURY

The kidnapping charge against Finta stemmed from his forcible confinement of 8,617 Jews, mostly women and children, to an unused brickyard in Szeged, Hungary, in June 1944, prior to loading them into boxcars for deportation to the Auschwitz and Strasshof concentration camps.

Hundreds died on the journey from overcrowding, malnutrition and poor sanitation. Auschwitz was located in Poland, Strasshof in Austria.

Judge Archie Campbell, who presided at the trial, told the jury it had to determine that Finta knew the acts he committed were inhumane in order to find him guilty of any of the four counts of crimes against humanity.

Campbell also advised the jury that the case rested on the identification of Finta by witnesses at the brickyard. He advised them it would be “dangerous to convict” Finta on the manslaughter charge, because there was no evidence of the causes of the deaths.

Survivors from Hungary, West Germany, the United States, Australia and Israel, some of whom traveled to Toronto to testify, identified Finta as the officer who helped confine Jews to the brickyard and stripped them of their belongings.

But as Amerasinghe pointed out afterward, “the 45 years (since the events) played a great part in the evidence.”

Manuel Prutschi, community relations director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he hoped the verdict would not affect the government’s determination to prosecute war crimes.

Milton Harris, chairman of CJC’s War Crimes Commission, said “no negative conclusions should be drawn as a result of this particular verdict with respect to continuing the process.”

Moishe Smith, president of B’nai B’rith Canada, said, “This acquittal must not be a roadblock to future cases.”

At present, cases are pending against at least three alleged war criminals living in Canada.

The Ontario Supreme Court announced recently that the trial of Stephen Reistetter, 75, of St. Catharines, Ontario, will open in April 1991. Reistetter is charged with kidnapping 3,000 Slovakian Jews in 1942 in Bardejov, Slovakia, then a puppet state established by the Nazis.

DID NOT TAKE THE STAND

Michael Pawlowski of Renfrew, Ontario, is accused of killing 400 in Byelorussia in 1942.

Jacob Luitjens, a former professor of botany at the University of British Columbia, faces civil action aimed at stripping his Canadian citizenship for not disclosing his pro-Nazi wartime activities in Holland when he applied to enter Canada.

Finta, who was found guilty of war crimes in absentia by a Hungarian People’s Court in 1948, became an object of sympathy for many as he sat alone in the Canadian courtroom.

He did not take the stand. When the verdict was announced, the former restaurateur from Hamilton, Ontario, wept and proclaimed that he always “loved” the Jewish people. He had often had himself photographed with Jewish notables at his Toronto restaurants, the Candlelight and the Moulin Rouge.

The outcome of the trial will doubtless boost the stature of Finta’s defense attorney, Douglas Christie, who has specialized in defending anti-Semites and neo-Nazi pamphleteers.

The main points of Christie’s defense of Finta were that the eyewitnesses were unreliable and sought revenge and that the accused was simply following orders.

In his summation to the jury, Christie contended that Jews were indeed a menace to security in 1944 when the Soviet army was advancing on Hungary. He maintained that when Finta stripped rings and other personal belongings from Jews, he was merely acting as a “tax collector.”

NEXT STORY