BUDAPEST, Hungary – The evidence against a 97-year-old Hungarian man accused of abusing Jews and helping deport thousands during the Holocaust is much stronger than a similar case last year that ended in a high-profile acquittal, experts say.
Laszlo Csatary's role as a police officer and chief of an internment camp from where 12,000 Jews were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps is amply documented and there are strong witness statements about his brutality, they said.
Authorities charged Csatary last week with "unlawful torture of human beings," accusing him of being present in 1944 when trains bound for death camps were loaded and sent on their way, regularly using a dog whip to strike detainees and in one case refusing to cut holes in a train car to allow people to breathe. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"He ruled over life and death," said Adam Gellert, an expert in international criminal law who has been researching the Csatary case. "He deported people who were supposed to be spared and committed a series of sadistic acts."
Csatary's case was brought to the attention of Hungarian authorities in September by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff, whose "Operation Last Chance" was launched in 2002, offering rewards in exchange for information about suspected Holocaust war criminals.
The program has sparked criticism from people opposed to paying informants — and has had mixed results.
A year ago, another elderly suspect found in Hungary by Zuroff, Sandor Kepiro, was acquitted of war crime charges by a Budapest court that ruled there was insufficient evidence, a decision that drew strong condemnation from Serbian and Jewish groups.
Prosecutors had charged that Kepiro, a former captain in a special security force, was involved in a 1942 raid by Hungarian forces in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad during which over 1,200 mostly Jewish and Serb civilians were killed. But experts said there were significant doubts about his guilt.
The Wiesenthal Center "bit on a case where the evidence was not enough to determine from a historian's perspective how much responsibility Sandor Kepiro had in the Novi Sad massacre," said Laszlo Csosz, a historian at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest.
The prosecution of a man who sat through court sessions in a wheelchair, had serious hearing problems and was hospitalized during the proceedings "caused negative feelings about the proceedings in 99.5 percent of the people," Csosz said. Kepiro died in September at age 97, while the ruling was being appealed by both defense and prosecution.
Zuroff defended Kepiro's prosecution, saying he was certain the case would have been won on appeal.
"There's no question that there was enough evidence to bring Kepiro to justice," Zuroff said. "There was no problem with the legitimacy of the evidence, but the judge disqualified the evidence in a very selective manner."
Zuroff said that in contrast with the Kepiro case, there were witnesses to the 1944 events and Csatary's alleged acts who are still alive and expected to testify.
"There are several people available and all that information was given to the prosecutors by me," Zuroff said by telephone from Jerusalem.
Csatary's case is also different because his role and responsibility as the commander of a ghetto in the Slovakian city of Kosice, at the time a part of Hungary, is well documented, Csosz said.
Gellert, the criminal law expert, said that the prosecutors probably came under political pressure to press charges in the Kepiro case.
"It was only during the trial that it became clear that the charges were unfounded." Geller said. "In the Csatary case, there are many more documents available ... which increases the likelihood of putting forth a more solid case."
"Compared to the Kepiro trial, this is a much, much stronger case," said Gellert, who described Csatary as an "enthusiastic enforcer."
Csatary was 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.
He appears to have been living quietly in Budapest since 1997, when, Canadian authorities say, he left the country before they had the chance to decide his fate in a deportation hearing alleging he had failed to provide information about his Nazi ties.
Still, there are questions. Laszlo Karsai, a historian at the University of Szeged in southern Hungary, called attention to the fact that while Csatary was condemned to death in Czechoslovakia, two of his superiors, the Kosice mayor and the police chief, were only sentenced to prison in Hungary.
"What can be proven in court and what is a historical truth ... are two completely different things," said Karsai, the son of a Holocaust survivor.
Karsai, who has been very critical of Zuroff's methods, stressed the importance of keeping a historical perspective, saying that though there is testimony about his sadistic treatment of people there is no proof he knew they were heading to their deaths unless he testifies so himself.
"To know in 2012 that the trains were going to Auschwitz is one thing, but for a police officer in 1944 to know that the trains were going to Auschwitz is another — and even if he knew, how can we prove that he knew what Auschwitz was?," Karsai asked.