Australia’s High Court ruled last week that Karoly “Charles” Zentaiwill not be extradited to his native Hungary on a war crimes charge. Zentai, 90, is believed to be the last World War II Nazi crime suspect in Australia, having allegedly beaten a Jewish teenager to death in 1944.
The basis of the court’s decision was its finding in order to qualify as an extraditable offense, an act or omission must have existed as a legal offense in the state requesting extradition at the time of commission.
The Hungarian government first requested Zentai’s extradition on March 23, 2005. A warrant for his arrest, which had been issued on March 3, 2005, charged Zentai in connection with the 1944 beating death of Peter Balasz. Zentai, then a 23-year-old soldier with the pro-Nazi Hungarian Royal Army, had supposedly identified Balasz as a Jew, despite the teen’s refusal to wear the then mandatory yellow star. Upon doing so, Zentai is alleged to have dragged Balasz to an army post where he and two other soldiers beat the teenager to death. Afterward, Zentai is said to have helped weigh down the corpse before disposing of it in the Danube.
At the time of Balasz’s death, Hungarian law lacked any criminal offense adequately connected with the commission of war crimes. The country’s first war crimes legislation was enacted in 1945, and the offense was codified in Hungary’s Criminal Code in 1978. Conviction can lead to a sentence of life imprisonment.
Zentai, who moved to Australia in 1950 and became naturalized, was among more than 200 immigrants to Australia that have been under ‘’active investigation’’ as possible Nazi war criminals since last year. Robert Greenwood, director of a governmental Special Investigation Unit, said his inquiry follows the reversal in 1986 of a 25-year-old government policy to “close the chapter” on Nazi war crimes. Greenwood told a Senate committee in February that Russia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary had agreed to cooperate and possibly to send witnesses to Australia if trials take place.
Reacting to the court’s ruling, an emotional Zentai told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “I’m just overwhelmed. I’ve been so stressed, the last few days in particular.”
Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator of Australia’s governing Labor Party, condemned the verdict as “appalling,” and 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 office in Israel, has pursued the case since 2005 when the Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance helped locate 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,” Zuroffsaid. “Today my thoughts are with the Balazs family.”