All Australians should welcome the decision of Federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison when he referred to a Perth magistrate the question of whether accused war criminal, Charles Zentai, is eligible for extradition to Hungary. Zentai is alleged to have been a warrant officer in the Hungarian army in World War II when Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. Zentai and two other men are accused of beating, torturing and murdering a Jewish teenager, Peter Balasz, in Budapest on November 8, 1944, and dumping his body in the River Danube.
Zentai denies any involvement in the murder. He claims to have left Budapest on November 7, 1944, one day before it occurred. But in his application for Australian citizenship in 1957, Zentai stated that he left Budapest in March 1945. By his own admission, therefore, Zentai was in Budapest when Peter Balasz was killed. Eleven eye witnesses have identified Zentai as one of the killers. The records of war crimes trials in Hungary in 1947 implicate Zentai in other alleged incidents involving the rounding up, beating and torturing of Jews in Budapest in late 1944.
As these events occurred more than 60 years ago, some have questioned whether it is appropriate to bring the 83-year-old Zentai to trial, even allowing for the heinous nature of his alleged crimes. However, in neither Australia nor Hungary is there a statute of limitations on murder. The 1997 Extradition Treaty between the two countries specifically provides that extradition may be granted “irrespective of when the offence in respect of which extradition is sought was committed”. (Article 2, para. 5).
It is in the very nature of war crimes that, unlike ordinary crimes, they are committed by people in positions of political, military or legal authority. The power of the state that is used to track down ordinary criminals and bring them to justice is the very power that is used by war criminals to try to escape justice. Only when political circumstances change does it become possible to arrest and prosecute them. Invariably, bringing war criminals to trial takes many years, sometimes decades.
In Australia the culture of impunity for alleged war criminals after World War II was fostered by the misguided policies of successive federal governments, both Labor and Coalition. During the Cold War Australia became a haven for suspected Nazi war criminals and their collaborators.
Australian governments were well aware of who these people were and the crimes of which they were accused. They were permitted to come to Australia in the mistaken belief that they would be of some intelligence value to Australia and its allies against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. This “devil’s bargain” was not only inherently immoral but also ineffective. Some of the immigrants had been “turned” into Soviet agents before leaving Europe and began providing intelligence to their KGB controllers against Australia.
Only the Hawke Government in the 1980s dealt with the matter honourably and sensibly. It amended the War Crimes Act and established a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to bring to justice alleged criminals from World War II who had been allowed entry into Australia. But the Keating Government shut down the SIU and reverted to the traditional policy of sweeping the issue under the carpet.
The present government is to be commended for its principled handling of the Hungarian Government’s application to extradite Zentai. If the extradition proceedings are successful, and any appeals from that decision are refused, the matter will be referred back to the justice minister for a final decision as to whether Zentai is to be surrendered to the Hungarian authorities.
The surrendering of Zentai for trial in Hungary would create an historic precedent. Apart from its moral significance, Zentai’s extradition would establish a model for the treatment of alleged war criminals from more recent conflicts who have been permitted to enter Australia. Since the 1970s Australia’s reputation for being soft on war criminals has acted as a magnet for those seeking to avoid punishment for serious crimes they are alleged to have committed in conflicts in Cambodia, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
These are not the sort of people most Australians would choose to have as their next door neighbours. Our reputation as a free and tolerant society was not built by people who, purely out of mindless hatred, have committed murder and other appalling atrocities. Certainly, justice delayed is better than no justice at all. But the Zentai case highlights how important it is for our government to act promptly to ensure that accused war criminals from any conflict face justice in the countries where their alleged crimes were committed so as to deter future war criminals from entering Australia in the first place.
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