Most western papers reported the acquittal of Sándor Képíró (age 97) on July 18. Képíró was accused of taking part in a raid in Novi Sad during World War II where several thousand Hungarian Jews and Serbian nationals were murdered. Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, had for years been insisting on bringing Képíró to justice, but it took a long time before the Hungarian prosecutor's office began proceedings. The reason for the delay was the thorny question that The New York Times mentioned: was Képíró's earlier trial valid or not? Because if it was valid, no new court procedure could be initiated. After all, no one can be tried for the same crime twice.
So, what happened in Novi Sad (Újvidék)? It was in April 1941 that Hungary attacked Yugoslavia and with Germany's blessing occupied certain territories that had belonged to Hungary prior to 1918. Near Novi Sad a Serbian partisan group, numbering about 40, became active against the occupiers shortly after the arrival of the Hungarians. By early January 1942, the Hungarian soldiers and members of the gendarmerie eliminated the partisans along with some Serbian civilians. According to some estimates about 1,000 people fell victim to the Hungarian action at that time. Once they finished with the countryside around Novi Sad, the Hungarian troops moved into city to continue their fight against the by then non-existent partisans. At first they were only looking for weapons and "suspicious people" who were, according to the Hungarian authorities, Serbian nationals and Hungarian Jews. But the search escalated into a murderous spree, which continued for days. The military, joined by members of the gendarmerie, began targeting ordinary civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. According to the official statistics, altogether there were 3,340 victims, including 2,550 Serbs, 743 Jews, 2,102 men, 793 women, 299 older men and women, and 147 children.
When this massacre became known in Budapest, some members of parliament insisted on an investigation. Reluctantly the government agreed, and court proceedings began which dragged on for at least a year. The men who actually ordered the massacre were permitted to remain free while conducting their defense because in those days no one would have believed that a distinguished member of the Hungarian office corps would escape. How wrong they were! Three of those charged with the most serious crimes escaped to Germany only to return to Hungary after the German occupation of the country as members of the SS. But there was another group of smaller fish, including Sándor Képíró, who were convicted for their part in the Novi Sad massacre. Képíró received a ten-year prison term without the possibility of appeal. A few days later, however, the verdict was annulled and he was reinstated as a member of the gendarmerie. That happened on February 18, 1944, i.e., before the German occupation of the country. The circumstances of the annulment are not clear.
After the war Képíró left the country and eventually settled in Argentina, returning to Hungary only in 1996. In his absence–in 1948–First Lieutenant János Nagy was arrested in Szeged and brought to the People's Court, which in those days was in charge of handling war criminals. In his confession Nagy named Képíró who, according to him, was responsible for the deaths of thirty people. But, Nagy continued, Képíró was not a complete villain because he actually saved the lives of a Jewish couple, the owners of a hotel where he was staying.
In the current case the prosecutors relied heavily on János Nagy's testimony and, especially in light of the information about Képíró's good deed, deemed it reliable. Although the prosecution maintained that the proceedings of the People's Courts left a lot to be desired, they argued that it didn't seem that Nagy made his confession under duress. As we will see later, the judge wasn't impressed. Nagy's testimony from 1948 was not allowed to be admitted as evidence.
The case is complex and very hard to follow from the description of the court proceedings by the court reporters and by MTI. Here I would simply say that Képíró denied any knowledge of the massacres. That is so unlikely that even the judge had to admit that this claim was unbelievable. Novi Sad wasn't exactly a metropolis in those days and the killing of thousands of people had to be known, especially by someone who was part of the military unit responsible for the massacre. The only thing Képíró purported to remember was saving the lives of his Jewish landlord and landlady.
I will say something about the charge and the verdict tomorrow. Today I would like to point out three things: (1) the courts' divergent views on Képíró's conviction of 1944, (2) the incompetence of the prosecution, and (3) the questionable choice of historians as experts.
In 2009 the Budai Központi Kerületi Bíróság (Buda Central District Court; BKKB) ruled that no proceedings can be started in Képíró's case because he had been convicted on the same charge before. But the Fővárosi Bíróság (Court of the Capital; FB) overruled the lower court's decision because "the 1944 verdict was annulled and therefore the decision cannot be considered a verdict." The same FB ruled two years earlier, in 2007, that the ten-year prison sentence Képíró received in 1944 could not be imposed for the same reason. I don't know whether the BKKB was trying to parse words (When is a conviction not a verdict?) or whether the court in 2009 was simply ignorant of the higher court's decision in 2007. Even though Hungary doesn't rely on case law to the extent that courts in Great Britain and the United States do, perhaps it's time for a Hungarian LexisNexis.
Let's move on to the prosecution. I managed to find out from the different media reports that the prosecutors claimed to be ready with the indictment in October 2010. But they weren't properly prepared. For instance, they didn't learn about János Nagy's 1948 testimony until December. And subsequently documents surfaced detailing Nagy's two verdicts (lower court and appeal court), in which Nagy was found guilty not only of murdering thirty civilians but a Serbian Orthodox priest as well. The indictment seems to have been put together in dribs and drabs.
Finally, I was surprised to read the names of the two experts because the historians are both well-known right-wingers. Thus, both of them, Tibor Zinner and Sándor Szakály, testified in a way favorable to the accused. Zinner doubted the genuineness of some of the supporting documents because one of them refers to the "occupation of Délvidék" (the southern parts of Hungary). No Hungarian would talk about "occupation" instead of "re-annexation," claimed Zinner. Szakály went so far as to claim that the Novi Sad raid wasn't ordered to kill Serbs and Jews but to eliminate the partisans and maintain order in the city. He specifically mentioned that, according to one court document, in the district where Képíró was in charge the soldiers didn't carry weapons at all. As for the 1944 verdict, Szakály doubted its authenticy. There are typos in it, and maybe it wasn't written in Hungary. Perhaps it was a Serbian document translated into Hungarian. Zinner's and Szakály's expertise boggles the mind.
It wasn't only I who found these expert opinions startling. Péter Feldmájer, president of Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége (MAZSIHISZ), an umbrella organization of the different Jewish communities, wrote a letter to the editor of HVG in which he pointed out that he has in his possession a copy of the 1944 verdict which references the "return of Délvidék" and not the "occupation." He added that the court should have chosen "real experts"–for instance, Enikő Sajti and György Markó who in 1985 published a lengthy article on the subject. The two historians found the original copy of the verdict in the Archives of Military History and published it in Hadtörténelmi Közlemények (Proceedings of Military History).
Zinner was indignant and claimed that the indictment he got from the prosecution didn't include the 218-page 1944 verdict. By now one can only gasp at the sloppy work of the prosecution. And, as we will see tomorrow, the judges were not much better.