By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– In his wheelchair, connected to an infusion device and with half closed eyes, he seemed an innocent old man. Prosecutors saw the 97-year old Sándor Képíró as a war criminal who killed dozens of Jews, Serbs and others the Nazis didn’t like during World War Two. But a court in Budapest declared him “not-guilty” Monday, July 18, citing a lack of evidence.
With difficulties one of the world’s most wanted Nazi-era war crimes suspects was driven into a packed court room. Képíró wasn’t able to stand when the judge spoke to him. The court said there was not enough evidence that he was involved in killing 36 Jews and Serbs in the Serbian city of Novi Sad in 1942.
(READ MORE AFTER THIS MESSAGE. CLICK ON THE LINK FOR MORE INFORMATION)
Farmotel Stefania is located in hunting area in one of Hungary’s most prestigious wine regions. Near hills, forests and lakes. It has all the facilities of a fine hotel and offers full privacy, huge outdoor space, sauna, grill house and much more.
He barely reacted when the not-guilty verdict was announced. Many in the room cheered and clapped after Judge Béla Varga read out the verdict of the three-judge court. Female carers, wearing beautiful make-up, embraced him. It meant a knife through the heart of Holocaust survivors who demanded a day of justice.
They recall how Hungarian forces shot killed at least 1,200 Jews, Serbs and Roma, also known as Gypsies, within just three days, near the Danube river in Novi Sad. In total some 3,000 people were killed by Hungarians in that cold January, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
However public prosecutors maintained that Képíró as captain of a police unit was personal responsible for the killings of at least 36, often Jewish, people between January 21 and January 23, 1942, near the Danube river. The bloodshed became known as “the massacre of Novi Sad”, named after the city where the killings took place.
LONG PRISON TERM
They demanded a long prison term and payment of some 4.5 million Hungarian forints ($23,300) to cover legal costs. They were considering an appeal, but the question remained whether Képíró would stay alive long enough to face another date with justice.
The acquittal was viewed as controversial by trial observers. Képíró was already sentenced in the 1940s over his alleged involvement in deadly raids and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He was released by Hungary’s fascist government.
Képíró never really denied that he was involved in rounding up people. “No I don’t regret it, it was my obligation,”he told a reporter earlier. Yet, when the extend of the trial became clear he later said about those who died: “I am not guilty, and I have always lived a decent life.”
The court seemed to agree. It came as a set back for the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center. Directeur Efraim Zuroff has made clear he has no doubts that Képíró killed many people. Képíró suid Zuroff for calling him a war criminal. A Budapest court acquitted Zuroff in May.
HUNGARIAN AUTHORITIES CRITICIZED
Zuroff has expressed his frustration that it took Hungarian authorities years before prosecuting Képíró.
Since 1996 Képíró lived in Budapest after hiding for decades in Argentina, a favorite destination for Nazi-suspects. Hungary came in action when the Wiesenthal Center reported in 2006 that he lived in an apartment in Budapest. Opposite a synagoge.
Zuroff has urged judges and others to overlook the old age related health problems of Képíró. “Time does not diminish the guilt of the killers and old age should not protect those who committed such heinous crimes,” he said.
Hungary was a close ally of Nazi Germany during most of World War Two, when some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Not all Hungarians seem bothered by that history. Rights groups have expressed concerns about the growing number of extremist groups in the country. The perceived antisemitic party Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) is the third largest fraction in parliament.