BERLIN (JTA) — Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff is fighting libel charges filed by an alleged war criminal in Hungary.
The case, being heard in a Budapest courtroom, began Oct. 8 and is scheduled to continue through a final hearing Dec. 16.
It is likely the first time that a man under investigation for mass murder has sued his accusers, Zuroff told JTA.
Zuroff, who has been searching for Nazi war criminals under the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance program, submitted documents to the Hungarian authorities in August 2006 to prove that Sandor Kepiro, while serving as a Hungarian gendarmerie officer in World War II, organized a massacre of about 1,246 residents — Jews, Serbs and Roma — in the city of Novi Sad in January 1942.
The investigation of the charges is continuing, according to Zuroff’s attorney, Marton Rosta.
Kepiro, now 96, sued Zuroff in 2007, alleging that Zuroff had made statements about the case as fact rather than opinion.
Rosta said the court agreed with Kepiro and opened the current trial, in which Zuroff is required to back up his "factual" statement.
"This is a very trying and frustrating experience," Zuroff wrote in an e-mail to JTA, "since Kepiro should have been tried a long time ago … and instead I’m the one on trial."
According to Zuroff, in 2006 he provided the authorities with documents from a 1944 court verdict finding Kepiro and 14 other Hungarian army and police officers guilty of "violating the code of honor of the Hungarian military/gendarmerie" by participating in the Novi Sad massacre. All were given harsh sentences, but were freed and given promotions following the Nazi invasion of Hungary, Zuroff said.
After World War II, Kepiro allegedly fled to Austria and then Argentina; in 1946, the Communist government of Hungary retried him in absentia and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
Twice convicted, Kepiro nevertheless returned to Budapest in 1996.
"He’s saying that he did not kill anyone and that all he did was verify/ferret out armed ‘partisans’ … who posed a threat to the occupying Hungarian forces," Zuroff wrote in his e-mail. It is a "blatant lie, since his men rounded up hundreds of [civilians], almost all of whom were taken to the Danube to be shot."
Should the judge find Zuroff’s proof lacking, he faces a fine or up to two years in prison. Even if Zuroff is cleared, Kepiro remains innocent in the eyes of the court, and may or may not be tried on the war crimes charges, Rosta said.
While Zuroff told JTA he had never been sued before, a Lithuanian Nazi war criminal living in Scotland, the late Antanas Gecas, succeeded in stopping the sale of Zuroff’s first book, "Occupation Nazi-Hunter: The Continuing Search for the Perpetrators of the Holocaust," for six years.