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Crime and punishment

July 25th, 2011

Ex gendarmerie captain Sándor Képíró, 97, was acquitted of the charge of responsibility for the execution of more than 30 Jews and Serbs in Serbia in 1942. Left and right-wing commentators compare this case to earlier trials involving those accused of crimes during the Communist period, and appear to agree that it is almost impossible to administer genuine justice.

In January 1942, around 3,500 Serb, Jewish and Roma civilians were murdered over three days by Hungarian forces in and around the city of Novi Sad in northern Serbia. In Sándor Képíró’s case, the prosecution demanded a prison sentence for the former captain in the gendarmerie (pre-1945 Hungarian military police), who topped the list of most wanted Nazis compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.  Képíró firmly maintained that he had killed no-one.

Even during the Second World War, officers accused of ordering the massacre were sentenced by a Hungarian military court, but in 1944 they were all released by the new government which was installed after the occupation of Hungary by Nazi Germany. Képíró, who had been a minor defendant in that case, only served a few weeks of his 10 year sentence. Re-examining the case now, the court found insufficient evidence to convict him. Both the defence and the prosecution appealed against the verdict – the defence on the grounds that the verdict had not completely cleared the defendant’s name.

Zsolt Szentesi Gréczi, writing in the liberal Hírszerző, believes that „there is no such thing as absolute truth, and for that reason I do not think that justice will be administered,” in this case. Sándor Képíró, he writes, participated in a huge criminal act, thus “even if he is legally acquitted, he remains morally responsible.”

Gréczi draws a parallel with the case of Béla Biszku (a former Interior Minister, regarded as one of the main architects of the repression after the 1956 anti-Communist Uprising), who, Gréczi suggests, is guilty – despite the lack of documents which would prove that he ordered judges to sentence the revolutionaries to death.

A similar point is made by Miklós Talián in komment.hu, recalling that the most popular excuse given by the people behind the 20th century dictatorships in Hungary, was that they were not guilty because they had no choice.  “Generally speaking, that is simply not true,” Talián writes, adding that for most of the Hungarian public, both the Horthy era (between the two World Wars) and the Communist regime represent golden eras which were violently destroyed.  “If we scratch the surface of these regimes, we might destroy the only positive and legitimate basis for many people: the alternative, false reality which they continue to believe in, based on the past,” – says Miklós Talián.

It is impossible to find the historical truth in courtrooms – writes Sándor Révész in Népszabadság.  The radical right wing public which loudly applauded the not-guilty verdict felt a moral victory, on behalf of the Hungarian army which fought for victory alongside Nazi Germany. “And whose fault is that? Is it the court’s, because it could not prove the defendant guilty after the elapse of 70 years? Absolutely not.”

In an earlier article Révész proposed that alleged Second World War criminals  should no longer be put on trial, as their mere presence in the courtroom arouses sympathy, rather than condemnation. “No big game being in sight any longer, the hunt must be quietly stopped”, he suggested.

Szabolcs Szerető, deputy editor of the right-wing daily Magyar Nemzet, believes that the director of the Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff was simply trying to justify the institute’s own existence, by first tracking down then denouncing Képíró to the prosecutor. He „found an ‘ideal victim’ in Sándor Képíró, easily to hand, living in Hungary since 1996. Szerető rejects the explanation put forward by a representative of the Wiesenthal Centre, who alleged that “Hungarians are not mature enough to face their own past.” The court , he argues, does not represent the public – it has to rule on the basis of evidence. Szerető also condemns the stance of the defendant’s extreme right wing supporters, who interpret the sentence as a denial of the crimes perpetrated by the Hungarian armed forces in 1942. Szerető also reminds readers that at the end of the war many thousands of Hungarian civilians were brutally murdered by the new Titoist regime in Yugoslavia – in crimes often seen as reprisals for the Novi Sad massacre.

A center-right blogger in Mandiner also believes that Efraim Zuroff simply discredits himself and his case with his accusations. And as a result, many people will conclude that there is no point in taking elderly pensioners to court. “We ought to realise that Zuroff’s behaviour makes it harder to call those to account who committed crimes during the Communist era”, writes Mandiner.

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