Thursday, 28 April , 2005 12:22:00
  The World Today - Hungary seeks extradition for war crimes suspect
Reporter: Tanya Nolan


TANYA NOLAN: Justice Minister Chris Ellison is considering whether to grant a formal request by the Government of Hungary, for the extradition of suspected Nazi war criminal, Charles Zentai, who is currently living in Perth.

An international arrest warrant was issued for the 83-year old last month, alleging he murdered a Jewish teenager in 1944 whilst serving in the Hungarian Army, which was an ally of Hitler's army in World War II.

Charles Zentai is refusing to speak to the media, but he has in the past said he would return to Hungary to face the allegations because he wasn't in the country at the time of the alleged murder.

Senator Ellison warns that Mr Zentai is entitled to the presumption of innocence under Australian law.

Doctor Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Israel, and the Center's self-declared chief Nazi hunter, has been helping Hungarian authorities with their investigation, and he told me there is extensive witness testimony alleging Mr Zentai's involvement in a number of other war crimes.

EFRAIM ZUROFF: There is extensive witness testimony about his participation in the specific crime, and there are also indications that that was not the only crime that he'd committed.

TANYA NOLAN: What other crimes do you allege he's committed?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: There is testimony that suggests that Mr Zentai and his accomplices used to go on manhunts of Jews in the streets of Budapest, used to capture or kidnap Jews, bring them to the military barracks at Arena Uzo (phonetic), Arena Street 51 and beat them up and torture them, at least beat them up and torture them.

TANYA NOLAN: Is this around the same time that it's alleged he was responsible for murdering the Jewish teenager in Hungary?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: That's correct. See, what you have to understand what our listeners have to understand is this is a period in which Hungary was ruled by the (inaudible) force, which were the Hungarian fascists, and was basically open season on the 100,000 Jews living in Budapest.

So these crimes were fairly common and there was people like Mr Zentai who roamed the streets of the city, trying to catch Jews in order to murder them, and many of those bodies were later thrown into the Danube.

TANYA NOLAN: So what charges are specifically named in the arrest warrant that was issued for Mr Zentai last month?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Well, to be perfectly honest, I have not read the document because it was not brought to our attention. But as far as I understand it relates to the specific charge in the case of the murder of Peter Valach (phonetic) and it might also include other cases, but I don't know.

TANYA NOLAN: So do you have any reason to suspect that those charges wouldn't be contained in this arrest warrant?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Well, I would hope that they would be.

TANYA NOLAN: So you began mounting a case against Mr Zentai yourself back in September – on what basis?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Peter Valach's father was a lawyer. He survived the Holocaust and he tried very hard to see to it that Zentai would be brought to trial.

He submitted quite a bit of testimony, and there were of course the cases held against his accomplices, and he urged the Hungarian authorities to seek the extradition of Zentai, already in the forties, but unfortunately, the request by the Hungarian authorities to the American allied occupation authorities in Germany was not successful and Zentai was able to travel to Australia in early February, 1950.

And at that time he wasn't brought to trial but his accomplices were. And in the course of those trials quite a bit of information came to light, quite a bit of witness testimony was accepted by the courts and they form the basis, I believe, for the charges against Mr Zentai.

TANYA NOLAN: And given in the past Mr Zentai's willingness to face his accusers, he maintains that he wasn't there at the time that is alleged that he was responsible for killing this teenager. Is there anything that you can see that would prevent his going back to Budapest?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Well, I would say to Mr Zentai if he's so convinced of his innocence, why doesn't he save us all a big headache and go on his own?

TANYA NOLAN: There has never been a successful extradition of a suspected Nazi war criminal from Australia. Does that diminish your hope in the case of Charles Zentai?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: Well, maybe it should increase our hopes. Maybe it will give an added motivation to the Australian authorities to finally, for the first time ever, take successful legal action.

I want to remind our listeners that in the case of Konrads Kalejs the extradition to Latvia was approved. Unfortunately he died before it could be carried out.

TANYA NOLAN: Do you fear that the same thing could happen? I mean, Charles Zentai is 83.

EFRAIM ZUROFF: I think the cases are very different because by the time that Latvia asked for the extradition of Kalejs, Kalejs was already ill and considerably older than Zentai. Zentai, to the best of our information is in good health, he drives his own car and that does not appear to be a problem at the moment.

Of course, that could change in the next few weeks and months, but I often say that we're in the ironic position of praying for the good health of those Nazi war criminals who can be brought to trial.

TANYA NOLAN: Do you believe there are any other suspected Nazi war criminals here in Australia?

EFRAIM ZUROFF: I am certain that there are others. The question is whether any of them will ever be brought to trial, even in Australia or elsewhere, and that of course is a function of research, political will, lucky circumstances in some cases because it depends on the health of the witnesses and the defendants, and I have to say that we've been incredibly unlucky in Australia so far.

There were many very good cases, Konrad Kalejs is only one of them, Karlis Ozols, who was an even higher officer in the infamous, notorious Arajs Commando in Latvia, and others, who were never brought to trial.

And this was really a travesty of justice and a combination of bad luck, lack of political will, loss of will by politicians and ultimately, in some cases, the passing away of the defendants.

So we've had incredibly bad luck. The fact that successful legal action has never been taken is a travesty of justice. It's certainly no proof that there were no Nazi war criminals in Australia, that's ridiculous.

TANYA NOLAN: Doctor Efraim Zuroff is Director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Jerusalem.

ABC Online, April 28, 2005