A 97-year-old man was cleared Monday of war crimes charges stemming from a raid by Hungarian forces in Serbia during World War II.
Sandor Kepiro had been charged by prosecutors because of his alleged involvement in the killing of some 35 people during an anti-partisan raid in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, then under Hungarian control, on Jan. 23, 1942.
Hungary was a member of the Axis powers -- allied with Germany>, Italy and Japan -- from 1940, participating in the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then part.
Prosecutors had stated in the trial which began May 5 that unidentified members of a patrol under Kepiro's command killed four people during the raid. Kepiro, at the time a gendarmerie captain, was also suspected of being involved in the deaths of around 30 others who were executed on the banks of the Danube River.
Many of the dozens of people attending the court session cheered and clapped after Judge Bela Varga read out the verdict of the three-judge tribunal.
Kepiro, who returned to Hungary in 1996 after decades in Argentina, was discovered living in Budapest in 2006 by Nazi hunters with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Before reading out the verdict, Varga said Kepiro had been brought to the tribunal by ambulance and had spent the past week in hospital. The judge said he had apparently been given the wrong medication.
In a statement from Kepiro read out at the start of the court session, he rejected all the charges. "I am innocent. I never killed, never stole. I served my country," said the statement read out by Kepiro's psychologist, who added that Kepiro said he returned to Hungary from Argentina in 1996 "because for him without Hungary there is no life."
In an unusual procedure, the verdict was being given over two days, Monday and Tuesday, because, on doctors' orders, only two court sessions of 45 minutes can be held daily due to Kepiro's frail health.
After Varga cleared him of the charges, Kepiro -- who sat in a wheelchair during the session, had an IV drip in his arm and did not speak -- was taken out of the courtroom by paramedics upon the request of his lawyer, Zsolt Zetenyi. After a brief recess, Varga continued reading out the full ruling, with only Zetenyi representing the defense.
Serbia's war crime prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center attended the session, leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office and who brought Kepiro's case to light in 2006, earlier described the proceedings as "one of the last major trials" of Holocaust-era war criminal suspects.
In 1941, in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, Hungarian forces entered northern Serbia -- which sided with the Allies during the war and had been part of Hungary until World War I. In early 1942, those Hungarian forces carried out raids to counter the growing number of partisan attacks.
Kepiro said earlier that his task was to supervise the identification of people being rounded up, but he said he was unaware of the killings until after they had been carried out. About 800 Serbs and 400 Jews are thought to have been killed in the raids.
In January 1944, Kepiro and several other officers were convicted of disloyalty by a military court for their role in the Novi Sad raids. The 10-year prison sentence, of which Kepiro served a few weeks, was later annulled and his rank reinstated.