Perth man Charles Zentai was imprisoned in 2009 in his home city as the Hungarian government sought his extradition to answer questions on the 1944 murder in Budapest of 18-yr-old Jewish youth Peter Balazs has died at the age of 96.
The extradition request was denied by the Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor and Zentai was freed.
Balazs was dragged from a tram in Budapest because he was not wearing the mandatory Yellow Star of David. He was savagely beaten to death in an army barracks and his body dumped in the Danube. J-Wire has an ad from the Budapest newspaper in which Balazs’s father appeals for information on his missing son. Zentai had been wanted by the Hungarian authorities for questioning about the murder. Balazs was living under Swiss protection.
Zentai’s son Ernie Steiner told media: “He was an extremely kind and gentle and loving man. He was falsely accused and we were never allowed to produce evidence of his innocence in Australia.”
In 2009 Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor determined that Mr Charles Zentai should be surrendered to the Republic of Hungary to face prosecution for a war crimes offence, which allegedly occurred in 1944.
“The Australian Government takes international crime cooperation and allegations of criminal conduct, including war crimes, seriously,” Mr O’Connor said.
“My decision is not one of determining Mr Zentai’s guilt or innocence. It was about deciding whether or not Mr Zentai should be surrendered to Hungary in accordance with Australia’s extradition legislation and its international obligations. These obligations reflect Australia’s crime cooperation responsibilities to other nations around the globe.
“The considered and methodical application of the Extradition Act ensures that Australia is not a haven for alleged criminals. It also ensures we cooperate effectively, on matters of justice, with countries around the world.” Mr O’Connor said.
But Zentai appealed. In February 2010 lawyers acting for Zentai, appealed to the Human Rights Commission to “safeguard their client’s rights”. In July 2010, Zentai won his appeal against his extradition to Hungary at Perth’s Federal Court where Justice Neil McKerracher ruled that the Federal Government did not have the power to extradite Zentai stating that the war crime charge did not exist in Hungary at the time of Balazs’s murder.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s chief Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff issued the following statement:
“The fact that Karoly (Charles) Zentai died a free man without being tried for his crimes is a testament to the complete failure of the Australian government to hold the Nazi war criminals and collaborators who found a refuge in Australia accountable for their role in the implementation of the Nazis’ Final Solution of European Jewry.
While Australia deserves credit for passing a special law to enable prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators living in the country, its judiciary failed to punish any of those brought to trial, and its political leadership closed down the Special Investigations Unit established to investigate these cases, long before it should have.
This unfortunate decision, allowed quite a few individuals, such as Karlis Ozols and Konrad Kalejs of the Latvian Arajs Kommando, Leonas Pazusis of the Lithuanian Ypatingasis burys, and Argods Fricsons of the Latvian Security Police, who served in notorious units which murdered many thousands of innocent Jews and others, to escape justice and enjoy the numerous benefits of living in one of the world’s best democracies.”
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry states: Australia has one of the finest and fairest legal systems in the world, but as a society we have a long record of failure to address historical injustices until it is too late. For decades, government and non-government institutions turned a blind, but often knowing, eye to child sexual abuse, aboriginal deaths in custody, the stolen children and the entry of war criminals into Australia from conflicts all over the world.
A 2006 US-government commissioned report accused Australia of having “an ambivalent” attitude to hunting Nazi war criminals in particular, and a “lack of the requisite political will”.
The case of Hungarian-born Karoly (Charles) Zentai, who reportedly died in Western Australia on 13 December 2017, confirms this assessment. He was accused of detaining and beating to death Peter Balasz, an 18 year old Jewish youth, and throwing his body in the Danube River in Nazi-occupied Budapest in November 1944.
In 2012, Australia’s High Court ruled that the Australian government could not order Zentai’s extradition to Hungary to face a criminal trial, because the offence of “war crime” did not exist under Hungary’s laws in 1944. The decision was widely criticised as a triumph of narrow legalism over substantive justice. Dissenting judge Dyson Heydon said that the Court’s decision was an “extremely technical one”, noting that in reality Zentai was wanted for “beating a Jew to death in Budapest in 1944”.
It might seem hard to imagine that a grey-haired old man could have committed unspeakable crimes in his youth, unrelated to any military operations that were going on
at the time. Australians are fortunate in never having known the daily horror of living under a totalitarian government. The very idea of killing a teenage boy because of his religious or ethnic background is well beyond the range of experiences of most of us.
But there is something we can all understand. The surviving relatives of Peter Balazs were not looking for vengeance. They wanted the whole truth about what happened to Peter to be revealed after all these long years, to put their anguish to rest. The loved ones of any victim of an alleged murder would have demanded no less.
No accused Nazi war criminal has ever been punished in Australia. The US, Canada and the UK all have a far better record than Australia in bringing war criminals to justice, extraditing them and stripping them of citizenship.
Over the years Australia has accepted as citizens accused war criminals not only from World War II but also from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Cambodia. They blend in seamlessly with the rest of Australian society. Exploiting our tolerance and naivety, they walk freely among us and our children.
Forgiveness can be a powerful healing sentiment in the appropriate circumstances, but not when the wrongdoer seeks no forgiveness, shows no remorse and does everything possible to evade justice.