BUDAPEST, Hungary – A 97-year old Hungarian man proclaimed his innocence Thursday as his war crimes trial began for the 1942 killings of civilians in Serbia.
Sandor Kepiro, a former gendarmerie captain, is charged by prosecutors with taking part in January 1942 raids by Hungarian forces in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad, in which around 1,200 civilians were killed.
According to court papers, unidentified members of a patrol under Kepiro's command killed four people during a raid on Jan. 23, 1942. Kepiro is also suspected of being involved in the deaths of around 30 others who were executed on the banks of the Danube River.
Serbia's war crime prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center attended the start of the trial.
"This is a clear example that even after 70 years of a crime being committed ... a perpetrator can be brought to justice," Vukcevic told The Associated Press in a courtroom interview. "Justice is being served today."
Kepiro, who returned to Budapest in 1996 after living for decades in Argentina, acknowledged that he participated in the raids but denied any responsibility in the killings.
"I am innocent and I am here on trumped-up charges," Kepiro said in court. "This trial is a terrible thing. There is no basis to this, everything is based on lies."
Kepiro, though looking very frail and needing assistance to walk, said he felt physically and mentally fit to stand trial. He said he was being put on trial "because I am the last survivor. Everyone else who was there is dead."
At the start, Kepiro sat with a sign saying "Murderers! The murderers of a 97-year-old man!" on his lap, which Judge Bela Varga told him to put away. Varga also ordered several Jewish students attending the trial to take off yellow stars pinned to their lapels or risk being expelled.
Due to his poor hearing, an assistant repeated all questions from the judge and other court officials into Kepiro's ear and the session was interrupted by recesses when Kepiro said he felt too tired to continue with his testimony.
"It's clear that this is one of the last major trials" of Holocaust-era war criminal suspects, said Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office.
"I am thankful to God that Kepiro is alive today. My sense is that (Hungarian authorities) were hoping that we would die and spare Hungary this embarrassment," said Zuroff, who brought Kepiro's case to the attention of authorities in 2006.
In 1941, in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, Hungarian forces entered northern Serbia, which 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 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.
Kepiro told the court he had intervened to save to lives of a Serbian-Jewish family that owned a hotel in Novi Sad and were about to be taken by Hungarian soldiers to be shot.
At the heart of Kepiro's case is a January 1944 conviction for disloyalty handed down by a military court for his 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.
Kepiro claimed the 1944 proceedings were a show trial to appease the Allied forces.
Zuroff, however, said the decision to overturn Kepiro's conviction was made possible only by the March 1944 occupation of Hungary by Nazi Germany.
In 2007, a Budapest court rejected a request by Zuroff to enforce Kepiro's 1944 conviction and put him in prison.
A verdict in Kepiro's trial is expected on May 19. If convicted, Kepiro could face life in prison.