Acquittal of Kepiro in Novi Sad killings roils Jewish leaders

BUDAPEST (JTA) — Jewish officials are viewing the acquittal of accused war criminal Sandor Kepiro in Hungary as an outrage and a betrayal.

Applause and cheers broke out in the courtroom Monday as Judge Bela Varga announced the verdict. He finished reading the 90-page verdict the next day.

On Tuesday, Hungarian prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict, calling it "unfounded" and "inconsistent."

Hungarian prosecutors had charged Kepiro, a former World War II gendarmerie officer, with involvement in the killing of about 400 Jews and 800 Serbs during an anti-partisan raid in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, then under Hungarian control, on Jan. 23, 1942. Kepiro, now 97, returned to Hungary in 1996 from Argentina, where he fled to after World War II. 

"After 70 years there are no answers to many questions that we want to know about those tragic events in 1942,” Varga said Monday during the announcement of the verdict,  referring to "the unsatisfactory evidence of the prosecution in the case of Kepiro."

"We just simply do not know who were those, who gave the command to the people serving under Kepiro," the judge said.

Kepiro was "acquitted on insufficent evidence, and not on absence of crime,” Varga said Tuesday when he finished reading his verdict.

Kepiro also was suspected of being involved in and responsible for the death of about 30 other civilians who were executed on the banks of the Danube River in Novi Sad, shot through holes cut into the frozen river. 

Kepiro had been found guilty of involvement in the massacre twice: once by the pre-Nazi Hungarian courts in 1944, and again after the war, in 1946. By then he allegedly had fled via Austria to Argentina. He returned to Budapest in 1996, where he was located by Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office.

Zuroff has been searching for Nazi war criminals under the center’s Operation Last Chance program.

"This is an absolutely outrageous verdict," he told JTA. "It flies in the face of all the evidence available. This verdict contradicts what we know about the events in Novi Sad on Jan. 23, 1942. It is an insult to the victims, an insult to the Jewish community, to the Serbian community, and it’s a very sad day for Hungary.”

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement that "Holocaust survivors view this verdict as a betrayal by Hungarian judicial authorities of the demands of justice and memory. Hungary has turned its back on history in failing to come to grips with its collaborationist policies with the Nazi regime during World War II.

"At a time when extremist elements compromise present day Hungarian politics, this verdict is particularly unsettling."

 

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