Background: Important step forward in bizarre case

Of all Nazi criminals' cases, Zentai's was a first, writes Efraim Zuroff.

zentai 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
zentai 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Wednesday's decision by the Australian Supreme Court to reject a legal challenge by suspected Hungarian Nazi war criminal Charles Zentai to prevent his extradition to stand trial in Budapest for alleged crimes during World War II puts an end to one of the most bizarre efforts ever mounted to block the prosecution of a Holocaust perpetrator. In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that the magistrates in Perth, where Zentai resides, have jurisdiction to rule on the extradition request submitted by Hungary, thereby ending a legal saga that delayed Zentai's prosecution for more than two years. The Zentai story began in the summer of 2004, shortly after the Wiesenthal Center launched its "Operation: Last Chance" project that offers rewards for information that facilitates the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals in Hungary. A letter sent to our Jerusalem office revealed that in 1944, Karoly Zentai, a Hungarian army officer serving in Budapest, apprehended an 18-year-old Jew named Peter Balasz who was not wearing the mandatory yellow star, took him to his barracks and together with two fellow officers beat him to death, and subsequently dumped his corpse in the Danube River. After the war, Zentai's role in the murder was revealed, but by then he had escaped to the American zone of occupied Germany. For reasons that remain unclear, a Hungarian request for his extradition was ignored, allowing Zentai to emigrate to Australia. The person who sent us the letter with the testimonies of numerous eyewitnesses to the crime was Adam Balasz, the victim's brother, who was prompted by Operation: Last Chance to appeal to us to find Peter's killer. All he knew, however, was that in the early 1950s Zentai was reported living in Australia, but he had no idea if Zentai was even alive, let alone where he was now located. Within a relatively short time, I was able to determine that Karoly Zentai, now known as Charles, was alive and well in Perth. When we exposed him, Zentai denied his guilt and even expressed willingness to "go to Hungary to clear his name," but that willingness rapidly disappeared when in March 2005, Hungary issued a warrant for his arrest and asked Australia to extradite him. Under such circumstances, the procedure is fairly simple since the Australian court does not address Zentai's guilt or innocence, but rather whether the Hungarian extradition request meets the local requirements for such a procedure. In theory, Zentai should have been extradited to Hungary long ago, but a technical challenge mounted by another suspect living in Perth led to a legal imbroglio that has prevented Zentai's trial for more than two years. A lawyer representing Vincent O'Donoghue, an Irishman wanted for fraud in Dublin, claimed that the magistrates in Perth, who were supposed to rule on his extradition to Ireland, could not in fact do so. His argument was based on the fact that they pledged allegiance to the state of Western Australia rather than to the federal republic, and since extradition is a federal matter, they did not have jurisdiction to rule in O'Donoghue's case. Zentai's lawyers realized that this claim could be applied to his case as well and joined O'Donoghue's appeal, which was finally rejected on Wednesday morning. The practical implication is that Zentai's extradition can now proceed as originally expected, with his appeal and the signature of the Australian attorney-general the only barriers to his day in court in Budapest. Over the years, I have heard many different alibis offered by Nazi war criminals regarding such cardinal issues as identity and/or criminal responsibility, but I have never encountered a situation like that of Zentai, in which a purely technical challenge launched by a common criminal nearly derailed the prosecution of a Holocaust perpetrator. Thank God that scenario has apparently been thwarted, although the possibility still exists that the past two years of delay may ultimately spare Peter Balasz's alleged murderer his long-overdue trial and punishment. Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.