A 97-year-old Hungarian man accused of perpetrating a massacre of civilians in Serbia during World War II is undergoing a trial in Budapest.
Sandor Kepiro, who was named as the world's most wanted Nazi war crimes suspect by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is being charged with responsibility for the rounding up and mass murder of more than 36 Jewish, Serb and Roma civilians over three days in the city of Novi Sad in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.
Thousands more people are believed to have been killed during that massacre.
Specifically, he is accused of complicity in war crimes.”
According to media reports, Hungarians, who were allies of Nazi Germany, seized hundreds of families in Novi Sad in January 1942 , taken to the banks of the Danube River and then shot them to death or threw them alive into the frozen river. The killings were apparently revenge for earlier attacks by partisans.
One witness to the massacre, Lea Ljubibratic, told reporters that people were thrown into the river under the ice. They would take people from their houses and shoot them in the street.
Kepiro was actually convicted of being involved in the Novi Sad killings by a court in Hungary in 1944, but his conviction was overturned. He was again convicted in 1946, by which time Hungary was ruled by Communists, but he somehow escaped to Argentina.
Reportedly, he returned to Hungary in 1996 and was ultimately located by the Simon Wiesenthal Center ten years later.
Kepiro told reporters in court that he is completely innocent and lambasted the trial as a circus. After entering the court with the aid of a walking stick, he took a seat and held up a printed sheet of paper which stated: Murderers of a 97-year-old man!
I am innocent and I am here on trumped-up charges, he said in court. This trial is a terrible thing. There is no basis to this, everything is based on lies. The charges are lies, all lies. I knew nothing of the massacres. The soldiers told me nothing.
Kepiro has earlier sued the director of the Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, for defamation, for calling him a ‘war criminal.” But that suit was dismissed.
While admitting he was present at Novi Sad at the time of the massacre as a gendarme captain in Hungary's fascist forces,
Kepiro claims he merely helped to arrest civilians, and took no part in the killings.
It's clear that this is one of the last major trials of Holocaust-era war criminal suspects, Zuroff told reporters. This is the first trial of a Hungarian war criminal and since Hungary has collaborated with Nazi Germany, it's very important it takes place. There can be no clemency, no sympathy and no ignoring of the facts.
Aside from Zuroff, Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic and Jewish representatives of Novi Sad are also attending the trial.
The indictment of Kepiro sends a powerful message that the passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers and that old age should not protect those who committed such heinous crimes, Zuroff said in a recent statement.
“Justice will be done so that the people of Novi Sad and the families of the victims can finally achieve a measure of closure, even if it is many years after the crimes.”
Outside the court, about 30 people demonstrated, wearing yellow Stars of David and holding up posters which said: How do you sleep Mr. Kepiro? and Murder has no age.
Zuroff added that: I hope ultimately [Kepiro] will be convicted and punished. It's very important, especially in Hungarian society, seeing the problem it faces with extreme right, racism and anti-Roma sentiment. The important message is that racism and xenophobia often leads to murder and the best way to deal with it is a trial. Even decades afterwards.”
Boris Kopilovic, a member of the Jewish community in Vojvodina, told reporters: We all hope justice will be served. They have to be brought to justice, it's not important how old, or what medical condition they are in.
Kepiro defense is provided by the National Legal Foundation, which is led by Tamas Nagy Gaudi, a member of parliament for Hungary’s extreme-right Jobbik party.