SYDNEY (JTA) — In a court ruling that is bringing new attention to Australia’s failure to prosecute alleged Nazi-era war criminals, the government will not surrender to Hungary the man believed to be the country’s last World War II war crimes suspect.
The nation’s High Court ruled Wednesday that Karoly “Charles” Zentai will remain in Australia and not be extradited to his native Hungary on a war crimes charge.
The long-awaited ruling handed down in Canberra dismissed an appeal by the federal government of a Federal Court judgment that Zentai could not be extradited because war crimes was not an offense in Hungary on Nov. 8, 1944 — the date that Zentai is accused of helping to murder Peter Balazs, a Jewish teenager, in Budapest.
The federal government had approved Zentai’s extradition to Hungary in 2009, but the decision was overturned on appeal last year in the Federal Court. The government then sought the ruling of the justices of nation’s highest court, which has now dismissed the appeal.
Zentai is not the first alleged Nazi war criminal in Australia 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 on whether he should be extradited to his native Latvia.
Zentai, who was a cadet sergeant in the pro-Nazi Hungarian army, has denied vehemently that he helped in the murder of the 18-year-old Balazs for not wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David before dumping his body in the Danube River. The 90-year-old Perth pensioner, who was first arrested by Australian Federal Police in 2005, claimed he left Budapest the day before Balazs was killed.
In their 5-1 verdict, the High Court 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.
Zentai greeted the ruling emotionally.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Perth. “I’ve been so stressed, the last few days in particular.”
But the judgment was met by a chorus of condemnation as well.
Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator of the governing Labor Party, slammed the verdict as “appalling.”
In a speech to be delivered in parliament Wednesday night in Canberra, Danby said Hungary enacted laws in 1945 to retrospectively make war crimes an offense.
“Now when a country seeks to pursue and even investigate the crimes of former Nazis like Zentai, they will be prevented from doing so by a blockheaded majority of High Court judges,” he said. “Those who voted for it shall live in infamy.”
Danby said he had already approached the Hungarian ambassador to ask whether officials in Budapest will seek Zentai’s extradition for murder.
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and one of the world’s leading Nazi hunters, has pursued the case since 2005. That’s when the Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance helped flush out Zentai’s whereabouts.
“It’s a very sad day for Australia, a very sad day for justice and a very sad day for the victims of the Holocaust, their relatives and anyone who has any sense of empathy with the victims of the Holocaust,” he told JTA. “Today my thoughts are with the Balazs family.”
He said the decision was “not a reflection of Zentai’s guilt or innocence,” but that Australia has “totally failed” on the issue of Nazi war criminals.
“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 said.
In 1987, the Australian government opened a Special Investigations Unit and investigated 841 suspects. The unit 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 will not be extradited.
“Last month we caught a big Nazi criminal,” he said, referring to Laszlo Csatary in Hungary. “It may be over in Australia, but it ain’t over elsewhere.”
Csatary, a former police officer, was arrested last month in Budapest for allegedly killing Jews in Ukraine in 1941. Budapest has decided not to try him for those charges, but is looking into others.
Australian Jews slammed the ruling while praising the rule of law.
Marika Weinberger, 84, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor whose mother and two grandmothers perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau, said of the Zentai ruling, “It does not come as a surprise. Yes, I am disappointed. Yes, I am sad. But I am not surprised.”
While she was a “proud Australian,” Weinberger said, her country’s governments have “never spoken up hard enough on the issue of alleged ex-Nazis in the country."
“We remain the only country who could have and should have” convicted Nazi war criminals, she added. “This is why it hurts. I can’t understand it. I would have liked to live long enough that at least one would be convicted, so that we would show the world we care.”
Anna Berger, the president of the Australian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, described the decision as “regrettable,” but added that “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.”
Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said in a statement, “The decision of the High Court will of course be respected and adhered to even though to many people it will seem like the triumph of narrow formal legalism over substantive justice. It will be distressing to many that Zentai will now live out his final days untroubled by any prospect of having to account for his past actions.”