The Australian

60 years on, Zentai arrested

By Page Taylor


ACCUSED war criminal Charles Zentai was arrested in Perth yesterday more than 60 years after he is alleged to have brutally murdered a teenage Jew.

The 83-year-old appeared shaken and nervous as he was led from his Willeton home in suburban Perth by Australian Federal Police officers shortly before 4pm yesterday.

The pensioner, who emigrated to Australia in 1950, could become the first person in Australia extradited on suspicion of war crimes after federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison yesterday signed documents acknowledging the Hungarian Government's request for his return.

Mr Zentai appeared at a special late sitting of the Perth Magistrates Court in front of magistrate Paul Heaney and was granted bail on condition he provide a $50,000 bond and $50,000 surety, surrender his passport and report to police three times a week.

His lawyer, Michael Bowden, said Mr Zentai did not pose a flight risk as he suffered from a serious heart condition and had known about the pending extradition proceedings for several months. His client would fight the extradition and the matter was likely to take "quite some time".

Outside court, Mr Bowden said his client maintained his innocence and had been very stressed by the allegations made against him.

News that Mr Zentai had been arrested was greeted with delight by Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who began mounting a case against Mr Zentai last September.

"This is a very good day for justice and for the victims of the Holocaust and for Australia," he said.

"We only hope that the process will be completed speedily and efficiently so that justice can finally be achieved.'

Jerusalem-based Dr Zuroff said he would pass the good news on to the family of teenager Peter Balazs, who was murdered in Budapest in November 1944.

"The efforts made by the father Dezso Balazs after the war to try and do everything possible to bring his son's murderers to justice, is bearing fruit decades later in far-away Australia," he said.

"It's a tremendous sense of historic justice."

Mr Zentai's arrest came just hours after a lunchtime press conference in which Senator Ellison indicated that although he had made a decision on the extradition, he would not make any announcement until Monday.

In a press release issued late yesterday after the arrest, Mr Ellison said: "The Australian Government worked closely with the Hungarian Government to ensure that the extradition request satisfied the requirements of the Australian Extradition Act so that proceedings could be commenced."

In coming months, a magistrate will decide whether Mr Zentai should be extradited to face a murder trial in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, where he served as a warrant officer with the Hitler-aligned Hungarian army from 1942 to 1945.

The court's decision must ultimately be ratified by Senator Ellison.

Mr Zentai's alleged involvement in the abduction, beating and murder of 18-year-old Peter Balazs in November 1944 first came to the attention of Hungarian authorities during the trial of fellow soldier Lajos Nagy in 1947.

A warrant for Mr Zentai's arrest was issued in Budapest the following year but he had already fled Hungary for Germany, where he lived in the American, then French, occupied zones before coming to Australia in 1950, claiming to be a refugee.

The original warrant detailed how Balazs was subjected to a brutal five-hour beating that led to his death.

Documents obtained by The Weekend Australian yesterday reveal that Mr Zentai claimed he left Hungary to escape from the Communist Party.

THE Australian, July 9, 2005