BUDAPEST, Hungary – A 97-year-old Hungarian man suspected of abusing Jews and helping deport thousands of them during the Holocaust was taken into custody Wednesday, questioned and charged with war crimes, prosecutors said.
The case of Laszlo Csatary was brought to the attention of Hungarian authorities last year by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish organization active in hunting down Nazis who have yet to be brought to justice.
In April, Csatary topped the organization's list of most-wanted Nazi war criminals.
Prosecutors decided to charge Csatary with the "unlawful torture of human beings," a war crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Csatary's lawyer, Gabor Horvath B., said that a judge, acting on a request from prosecutors, ordered his client to be confined to house arrest for a maximum of 30 days. Horvath B. said he had appealed the ruling, which also opened the way for authorities to confiscate Csatary's passport.
As he left a Budapest courthouse Wednesday afternoon following the house arrest hearing, Csatary walked slowly down a flight of steps, leaning on a companion for support. He wore a thin jacket and tried to cover his face from photographers and TV crews. He did not speak with reporters but appeared bewildered by the attention.
Tibor Ibolya, Budapest's acting chief prosecutor, said Csatary recounted his Holocaust-era activities to authorities during questioning, saying he was following orders and carrying out his duty.
"The suspect denied having committed the crimes," Ibolya said, adding that during his testimony Csatary's "attitude toward some of his fellow men of a certain religion ... is not what we would consider normal."
Prosecutors detained Csatary in an early morning sweep because they were worried he may try to flee. He has lived at least in two separate Budapest apartments during the last few months.
"We took Csatary into custody at dawn from an address to which he had no connection until now," Ibolya said. "He cooperated with investigators."
Csatary's lawyer said his client had moved to a new location because he was tired of being badgered. On Monday, 40 people held a protest outside one of Csatary's purported homes but he was nowhere to be seen.
According to a summary of the case released by prosecutors, Csatary was a police officer in the Slovakian city of Kosice, at a time part of Hungary.
In May 1944, Csatary was named chief of an internment camp at a Kosice brick factory from where 12,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Authorities said Csatary was present when the trains were loaded and sent on their way.
Csatary "regularly" used a dog whip against the Jewish detainees "without any special reasons and irrespective of the assaulted people's sex, age or health condition," the prosecutors' statement said.
As one train departed with some 80 Jews crammed into one railcar, Csatary refused a request by one of the Jews to cut holes in the walls of the wagon to let more air in, the statement said.
"We took into consideration the severity of his acts, but we should not forget that the suspect is due the presumption of innocence," Ibolya said. "In our estimation, he will not be able to escape."
Ibolya said considering Csatary's age, he was in good physical and mental condition, although experts had yet to examine him.
Csatary was been convicted in absentia for war crimes in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and sentenced to death. He arrived in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia the following year, became a Canadian citizen in 1955 and worked as an art dealer in Montreal.
In October 1997, Canadian authorities said the 82-year-old had left the country, apparently bound for Europe, before they had the chance to decide his fate in a deportation hearing. His citizenship had been revoked in August and the deportation order was based on his obtaining citizenship by giving false information.
Canadian authorities alleged that Csatary had failed to provide information concerning his collaboration with Nazi occupation forces while serving with the Royal Hungarian Police and his participation in the internment and deportation to concentration camps of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Ibolya said the investigation into the Csatary case was continuing and that prosecutors were waiting for information from Israel, including the possible testimony of survivors, and Canada.
"I expect this case to continue for months, even taking into account that we are treating it as one that we would like to conclude as soon as possible," Ibolya said.
In Israel, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, applauded the arrest.
"When you look at a person like this, you shouldn't see an old frail person, but think of a man who at the height of his physical powers devoted all his energy to murdering or persecuting and murdering innocent men, women and children," Zuroff told the AP.
Zuroff, often described as the world's top Nazi hunter, was able to locate Csatary with the help an unidentified, paid informant.
In 2002, he launched "Operation Last Chance," which offers rewards for information on suspected Holocaust-era war criminals and lobbies for governments to put them on trial.
Hungarian prosecutors say Zuroff first told officials about Csatary in September 2011, meeting with them as recently as July 9 to provide more data about him.
While prosecutors acknowledge Zuroff's role in the case, they have also criticized him for alerting the press in April about his findings.
Ibolya, Budapest's acting chief prosecutor, said that by making the case public, Zuroff may also have put Csatary on alert, increasing the chance that he would try to escape and "greatly endangering the success of the investigation."
A year ago, another elderly suspect uncovered by Zuroff's reward program, Sandor Kepiro, was acquitted of war crime charges by a Budapest court because of insufficient evidence. Kepiro died in September at age 97, while the ruling was being appealed.
Alon Bernstein in Jerusalem and Bela Szandelszky in Budapest contributed to this report.