A 90-year-old man accused of being a Nazi war criminal yesterday won his fight to stay in Australia after the High Court blocked his extradition to Hungary.
Charles Zentai was allegedly one of three Nazi-backed Hungarian soldiers who tortured and murdered a Jewish teenager in Budapest in 1944, a crime for which he has always maintained his innocence.
“The effect of the High Court’s decision is that Mr Zentai will not be surrendered to Hungary,” a spokeswoman for Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said, confirming that the decision was final. “Mr Zentai cannot be surrendered for extradition because the offense of ‘war crime’ did not exist under Hungarian law at the time of Mr Zentai’s alleged criminal conduct.”
Hungary first requested the extradition of Zentai, an Australian citizen, in 2005 for the offense of “war crime,” namely a fatal assault on young Jewish man Peter Balazs in November 1944 for not wearing a yellow Star of David.
He and two fellow soldiers in the transport unit of the Hungarian army, which was then allied to the Germans, were accused of beating Balazs and then tossing his body into the Danube River.
Zentai has always claimed he had already left Nazi-occupied Budapest by then and could not have been involved in the murder.
The Australian government agreed to send him to Hungary to face the allegations in late 2009, but he fought a legal battle against the move and the Federal Court eventually overturned his extradition.
Canberra pushed ahead with its case, despite pleas from Zentai’s family that he was elderly and had health problems, appealing the Federal Court’s interpretation of an “extraditable offense.”
Late last year, when the government was granted leave to appeal to the High Court, the nation’s highest judicial authority, it said the matter raised “a significant issue for the administration of Australia’s extradition regime.”
It said yesterday the High Court decision provided certainty about the interpretation of a provision of Australia’s extradition treaty with Hungary, but did not alter extradition arrangements.
Zentai’s son Ernie Steiner has previously said his frail father, who has lived in Australia for almost six decades, was willing to answer questions from Hungarian police about the murder, but did not want to leave the country.
Early last year, Steiner told the Australian Broadcasting Corp his father was “quite devastated” by the government’s decision to pursue him.
“We were hoping that this matter would have concluded by now and so it’s a big disappointment,” he said. “It’s really something he has to live with now potentially for the rest of his life.”