BUDAPEST, Hungary – A former Hungarian communist interior minister was taken into custody on Monday, suspected of war crimes for his responsibility in the fatal shooting of dozens of civilians after Hungary's 1956 uprising, prosecutors said.
Bela Biszku, who will turn 91 on Thursday, denied the charges but refused to make any further statements to prosecutors, who have requested that he be placed under house arrest.
If the case goes forward, Biszku would be the highest-ranking former communist official, and one of the very few Hungarians, to be prosecuted in connection with the post-1956 reprisals.
Hundreds of people were executed after the uprising was crushed by the Soviet army, including the late Prime Minister Imre Nagy and several members of his revolutionary government. Thousands of others were jailed or punished for their role in the brief revolt.
Biszku's detention is a "significant milestone in Hungary's post-communist criminal justice system," said acting Budapest Chief Prosecutor Tibor Ibolya, who described Biszku as "one of principal directors and people responsible for the reprisals following the 1956 revolution and fight for independence."
Biszku was taken into custody early Monday at his home in the Buda hills, where he has been living in retirement for decades.
"The suspect is in good physical and mental condition," Ibolya said.
Biszku was an official under the leadership of Janos Kadar, who came to power after the October 1956 uprising was crushed in a few days by the Soviet forces. Prosecutors say Biszku is the only surviving member of the communist party's interim executive committee, which is considered responsible for militias firing indiscriminately into crowds at two separate rallies in December 1956, killing 51 people.
Historians say that as interior minister Biszku also personally intervened in court cases and called for tougher sentences against revolutionaries, including the death penalty. But Ibolya said that for now those suspicions have not been sufficiently documented to form part of the case against him.
"We haven't given up and continue to pursue this as part of the Biszku investigation," Ibolya said.
Biszku has made few public appearances since the end of Hungary's communist regime in 1990, but he was questioned by police in 2010 after calling the 1956 events a "counterrevolution" and denying the crimes of Hungary's Soviet-backed regime.
If convicted for war crimes, Biszku could face a life sentence.