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Hungary arrests alleged Nazi-era torturer after tabloid finds him

July 18, 2012 |  4:30 pm


Nearly seven decades after the alleged  crimes, a 97-year-old man was arrested by Hungarian prosecutors and charged with torturing Jewish detainees before they were sent to Nazi death camps.

The arrests came days after Laszlo Csatary was confronted by a British tabloid, which used a tip passed on by a Jewish organization to find the elderly man at a Budapest apartment. The former Hungarian police official, who had eluded authorities decades earlier in Europe and Canada, came to the door in his socks and underpants, the Sun reported Sunday, and stammered at questions about his past, “No, no. Go away.”

Jewish groups were galled that British reporters got to Csatary before the Hungarian authorities, some complaining that Hungary had not taken the case seriously until they were shamed into doing so.

“They want to sweep it under the table, to have you believe that the only people who were guilty of those crimes were German Nazis,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, headquartered in Los Angeles, which tracks Nazi-era crimes. “We made a public outcry and they were embarrassed. The pressure was on.

“If there was no pressure, would he have been arrested? He would not have,” Hier said.

Hungarian officials have defended their actions and said they were already pursuing the case before it hit headlines. Prosecutor Tibor Ibolya argued the hunt spurred by the Wiesenthal Center may have put Csatary on alert, “greatly endangering the success of the investigation,” the Associated Press reported.

Csatary was charged with torture, accused of using a dog whip on Jewish detainees while heading an internment camp at a Kosice brick factory. Thousands of Jews were deported to Auschwitz from the camp in Hungary, penned into crowded wagons. Ibolya told reporters Wednesday that the elderly Hungarian denied being guilty of war crimes and said he had only followed orders.

A judge ordered Csatary to be put under house arrest for a maximum of 30 days and his passport could be confiscated, his attorney told the Associated Press, a reflection of widespread worry that Csatary would slip away again.

After World War II, Csatary was convicted in absentia of war crimes in Czechoslovakia and fled to Canada, where he lived for decades as an art dealer. Canadian officials eventually found he had lied to immigration officials, saying he was from Yugoslavia, and stripped him of his citizenship.

But Csatary slipped away from Canada in 1997 before he could be deported, evading capture. The Wiesenthal Center labeled him as its most wanted Nazi war criminal. Last year it said it had uncovered evidence that Csatary was in Budapest and urged Hungarian authorities to bring him to justice.

The Sun said its reporters had used information from the Wiesenthal Center to track down Csatary in a two-bedroom apartment in a “smart district” in Budapest. Government officials, under pressure from Jewish protesters to act, said that bringing the case would be difficult after so much time had passed.

Hungary insisted that it was nonetheless committed to the case. "The government has always supported the exhaustive exploration of past crimes and the prosecution of perpetrators,” a Hungarian government spokesman told the Telegraph amid the protests.

The timing was especially embarrassing for Hungarian President Janos Adler, who was visiting Israel days after the Sun story broke and facing questions from Israeli leaders about surging anti-Semitism in his country. In a poll this year, the Anti-Defamation League found that about three of four Hungarians surveyed said Jews had too much power in business and international markets. Nearly two-thirds said Jews “still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”

Such attitudes have risen strikingly since 2009, the poll found. The apparent escalation of Hungarian bias against Jews so alarmed Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that he returned a state award to Hungary this year, saying the country was trying to whitewash its past.

Csatary was arrested one year after Hungarian authorities acquitted another accused war criminal, Sandor Kepiro, had had been the Wiesenthal Center's  most wanted Nazi criminal. With Kepiro now dead and Csatary under house arrest, the Wiesenthal Center is still seeking prosecution of alleged criminals residing in other countries including Germany, Canada and Australia.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Laszlo Csatary leaves a Budapest court Wednesday. Credit: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP/Getty Images