The acquittal of Sándor Képíró: The prosecution, the courts, and expert historians

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.

 

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P.I.Hidas
Guest

Two Hungarian historians (one of them a Jewish history specialist) also testified on behalf of the accused using the proceedings to attack Israel.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

PIHidas, Peter, I don’t quite understand your note.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Peter, I was thinking about that whole thing. Do you mean Ungvary and Karsai? I’m not sure whether they were those who appeared in court on behalf of Képíró but they only talked about the case later. My reading was that they were against these trial at this late stage of the game and accused the Wisenthal Institute to insist on proceedings when the case was very weak. Like this guy’s. I don’t agree with them in general but they might be right in the sense that the case was weak. On the other hand, the court was biased.

Jano
Guest

I don’t think the court was biased. I have absolutely no idea if Képiró is guilty or not, but the evidence against him is very weak, a lot weaker than Zuroff presented it. Actually this man seems an extremely arrogant opportunist to me trying to justify the mere existence of his job. I think it’s quite illustrative that he never says he wants justice. He always says that he wants to make sure Képiró ends his life in prison.
Let’s emphasize that Képiró was acquitted due to the lack of evidence and was not declared innocent. This is exactly the case (have you read the full verdict?). I’m sorry but an independent court can’t just send someone to prison because the Wiesenthal center tells it to. Our legal philosophy is that it’s better to let someone guilty go then to sentence an innocent man to prison.
Actually the bias was against Képiró by the Jewish organizations declaring him guilty from the beginning.
Don’t get me wrong though, I agree that if there is solid evidence against someone of committing crimes, then they should be convicted regardless of their age (as should be Biszku and a lot of AVH/AVO “employee’s” too).

Member

Eva: “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.” If we would base authenticity on the use of proper Hungarian grammar, fift years from now they will annul anything that Hungary’s President, Pal Schmitt ever touched.

peter litvanyi
Guest
Dear Eva/ Others; there are subjects here I just can’t bring myself to rationally react to. It is futile to speak when in a state of extreme anger. Yet will it be better when this anger changes to cold hatred with the passage of time? Much as I wanted to comment on your article about the “reorganization” of the Hungarian Army: I shall not. Much as I want to comment on this “trial”: I shall not. Instead here is what my dear friend Vera wrote to me the other day; her father / a Croatian and later an officer in Tito’s Sutieska Army/ actually lived through Novi Sad. “…te is izraelita vagy! (Véleményem szerint nem is látszik, bár gyönyörű hollófekete hajad van. ) Az én Mamám családjából egyedül ő élte túl Auschwitzot, pedig heten voltak testvérek….meg a nagynénje, aki 1938-tól kezdve háromszor szökött át a határon (kétszer elfogták és visszatoloncolták), majd hamis papírokkal élt Budapesten és mentette sorstársait! Később ő talált rá anyura Szlovákiában amikor 35 kilósan, fagyott lábakkal nevelőszülőkhöz került a koncentrációs tábor felszabadulása után.” Nor shall I comment on Gyongyospata. I am ASKING everyone here to support JUDIT BERKI, read her writings and just talk to her if… Read more »
nem-igaz-magyar-vagyok
Guest
nem-igaz-magyar-vagyok

Kepiro was obviously a participant of the early steps in the WWII genocide. the same pattern was true for the Karpat-alja re-occupation.
Poor Hungarian officers were discovering that the re-occupation harvested many minorities.
The reaction was a pitiful solution: extermination with speed.
Especially under orban and his twins in jobbik, the irredenta is alive. God save the poor hungarians and their victims.

Jano
Guest

“Kepiro was obviously a participant of the early steps in the WWII genocide.”
No such thing. Evidence. If you have any (I guess you wouldn’t declare a man obviously innocent just by your hunch) bring it to the prosecution and help the case.

Member

Kepiro very likely would have been acquitted even in a civilized country. It’s almost 70 years. The interesting part of the trial was how Hungarians reacted to the verdict. There was an applause in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. Then the acquittal was used by many ultra-right publications as a base for anti-Semitic tirades against the Wiesenthal center. They especially loved Karsai’s remark since he is Jewish. I posted the CNN article about the verdict on my Facebook wall and I got comments quoted from kuruc.info style rags. They even called Karsai’s remarks “embarrassing”.
This is basically the funny thing with Hungarian events. Always watch the reactions.

nem-igaz-magyar-vagyok
Guest
nem-igaz-magyar-vagyok

a report in Wikipedia on the genocide in Bacska:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1942_raid_in_southern_Ba%C4%8Dka
who believes that any participants of the hungarian units were innocent?
I have a brooklyn bridge for those good men.

Member

It is unfortunate that this trial became a flag for the extreme right. If Kepiro is innocents, he and his family should absolutely distance themselves from any association with these idiots. At the same time, being a sympathizer with the right or wishing death for someone is not what Kepiro was on trial for and after all this time the proof was very weak. You cannot just put someone behind bars because you think he should be there.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Some1 you write ** “You cannot just put someone behind bars because you think he should be there” ** I will agree with this statement and add “You cannot just put someone behind bars because you would like them be there”. In the matter of “double jeopardy”, that is being re-tried for the same offence. This is expressly forbidden under any circumstances except one and that is where the presiding judge declares a ‘mistrial’. In the case of Sándor Képíró, he was convicted for his part in the Novi Sad massacre, and received a sentence of ten-year prison. This proves beyond all reasonable doubt that he was tried in a court of law for his part in the affair. The fact that the verdict was later annulled is neither here nor there. He was tried for the offence and irrespective of the verdict and when that fact became clear the judge at his second trial the judge should have stopped the proceeding and given all those involved in the prosecution for the second trial a ‘right royal roasting’. The second problem is the right of the defendant to face his accusers in open court and to be able to cross… Read more »
Joe Simon
Guest

Kirsten – One reads the Spectrum for comic relief. One needs it from time to time.

Jano
Guest

“Finally there is the question of the passage of time. To try a 97 year old man for an alleged offence which occurred some 70 years before is in itself an insult to the name of justice.”
I don’t agree, if there was solid evidence then he should be punished even 70 years later.
“The interesting part of the trial was how Hungarians reacted to the verdict.”
Not the Hungarians, the Hungarian hard right please don’t generalize. I agree though some attacks on the Wiesenthal center and Zuroff, I find their behavior rather disgusting too.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Some1:”If Kepiro is innocents, he and his family should absolutely distance themselves from any association with these idiots.”
I completely agree. By hiring a lawyer with far-right views and close connections to Jobbik Képíró and the family demonstrated lack of sound judgment. With Zétényi as his lawyer Képíró revealed certain political views which he should have kept secret given the charge against him.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
The whole business shows the state of affairs in the Hungarian Prosecutor’s office. Why this was ever allowed to go ahead I do not know, unless it was a put up job to discredit the Wiesenthal Center. Also I cannot understand why the Wiesenthal Center for pressing the prosecution. I do not think that the great Simon Wiesenthal would have allowed it. He was always very careful but I suppose time has remover what was left of those who committed such crimes. I suspect this case was one of the last so to keep their outfit alive they needed a conviction Jano my comment “”Finally there is the question of the passage of time. To try a 97 year old man for an alleged offence which occurred some 70 years before is in itself an insult to the name of justice.” Things which happened 70 years (a lifetime) ago have faded from the memory or have become distorted by time. Written records contain errors, omissions, their words change meaning etc. Jano your comment ** “if there was solid evidence then he should be punished even 70 years later.” ** What is solid evidence? After 70 years most of its originators/reporters… Read more »
Member
Certainly being a soldier is very difficult under any circumstances. To figure out 70 years later if he acted under orders (I know it was not what the trial was about) or for his own satisfaction, is very tough. I have a very hard time to digest the actions of war criminals, but I do understand the psychology of acting in a group. Sometimes there are choices to be made as a soldier, and you can either face the execution squad for not doing what you’ve been ordered to do or later maybe the criminal court. I think what a soldier can be tried for is his “volunteerism” for going on and committing more then it was ordered… Does this make sense? As far as Kepiro goes. I am sure he has done it, maybe he does not even remember he has done it. As for his family using the support of the Jobbik, I am not sure if there would of been anyone else who would of supported him. The sad part about this is that Jobbik and those extremist idiots are not in for justice, they are in for proeving that you can get away with murder and… Read more »
Jano
Guest

Odin: When I was talking about evidence I was talking about principle. If I kill someone now and 70 years from now someone finds a video of me doing it, me being halfway to the grave is not an excuse for not convicting me. On the other hand I agree with everything you wrote.
Some1: Exactly, the outcome of this trial can’t be good, it won’t bring closure to anyone. I also think that Képiró accepted the help of the only group that was willing to help him. He’s a 97 years old man and probably doesn’t get much of today’s politics. This is why bringing such a weak case to court was a crime IMHO. Just think about what an average Joe might deduce from this case and the one against MÁV in Chicago. This is unspeakably irresponsible.

Member
Jano: I do not want to be judge of what worth of going for. I am sure if my father would know who is the person who killed his grandma, he would want him in jail, does not matter how old that person is, so it is not a call I would want to make. With Kepiro, if there are surviving relatives, especially those who may witnessed the crimes, I can see how they want some sort of justice, but everyone else is just a bystander watching the show. We, as society can only hope for a justice system that is impartial, just, and sticks with the facts and evidence presented. I think the problem with this particular trial is that the people lost faith in the Hungarian justice system. What I have been witnessing is the deterioration of impartiality in every level. What I see is the influence of the church (some church) on politics and on politicians. I also see the influence of the current government in legal issues and it is just way to much for my liking. As for the MAV… it is getting out of hand now. I do not agree with this, and there… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest
Some personal answers; I refrain from commenting on this “trial”. Dear Mutt; “Kepiro very likely would have been acquitted even in a civilized country.” It is so easy to communicate to a fellow American. You left the Grand Jury factor out of it. Like /I am not sure at this point/ where was the 12 bozos? Eva mentioned the prosecution, the judges and etc. So where was the jury in this picture? I might agree with you; might not. I am kind of missing the Grand Jury here; am I alone? Dear “Odin’s”: “Peter Litavanyi You and I were placed in command. Neither you nor I were ever asked to sit in judgement on those we might have to fight. My job was to lead my people to kill..” Litvanyi for the record. I kindly disagree, Sir. I previously referred to Ottlik Geza bacsi: “Iskola a hataron”. Pehaps you should revisit that particular book. There is yes and there is no as well. I was wondering if you ever crossed path with Mr. Andrew Szenes /North Africa and so forth/. Some dear friends I lost touch with due to my negligence; am afraid they are all gone now. I am… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest
One more thing I need to add about us soldiers /whoever we are/: Papírkatonák Megható ez az öregkori felvétel az utolsó, 1994-es torontói koncertről, de a fiatalkori erőteljesebb volt: Bulat Okudzsava: Песенка о бумажном солдате (Dalocska a papírkatonáról). Az А как первая любовь… (S ahogy az első szerelem) (2002) CD-ről. Один солдат на свете жил, Красивый и отважный, Но он игрушкой детской был: Ведь был солдат бумажный. Он переделать мир хотел, Чтоб был счастливым каждый, А сам на ниточке висел: Ведь был солдат бумажный. Он был бы рад – в огонь и дым За вас погибнуть дважды, Но потешались вы над ним: Ведь был солдат бумажный. Не доверяли вы ему Своих секретов важных. А почему? А потому Что был солдат бумажный. А он, судьбу свою кляня, Не тихой жизни жаждал И все просил: «Огня! Огня!» – Забыв, что он бумажный. В огонь? Ну что ж, иди! – Идешь? И он шагнул однажды. И там сгорел он ни за грош: Ведь был солдат бумажный. Élt a világon egy katona, csinos és derék, de gyerekjáték volt csupán hiszen papírkatona volt. Meg akarta változtatni a világot hogy mindenki boldog legyen de ő maga egy cérnaszálon függött hiszen papírkatona volt. Boldog lett volna, ha… Read more »
Member

I’m tempted to copy here the lyrics of my favorite AC/DC song … but, no, I changed my mind.

Member

Thank you Mr Litvanyi. Very nice.
Mutt Damon, just give us the title, There is lyrics.com lol

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