Hungary bowed to international pressure yesterday and arrested 97-year-old Laszlo Csatary, one of the world's most wanted Nazi war crimes suspects, who is accused of sending more than 15,000 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.
Police in Budapest raided Csatary's home in a smart district of the Hungarian capital yesterday morning and announced he had been charged with committing war crimes. They took him into custody pending further investigations by state prosecutors.
The state prosecutor, Tibor Ibolya, said yesterday that Csatary denied the charges. "One of his arguments is that he was obeying orders," he said. Csatary was said to have looked remarkably young for his age. After questioning he was put under house arrest and his passport confiscated.
His arrest came after his whereabouts were widely publicised at the weekend, prompting anti-Nazi protesters and journalists to protest outside the Budapest apartment where he had lived undetected for 17 years.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Nazi-hunting human rights group, ranks Csatary as the most wanted war crimes suspect still alive. He is accused of deporting thousands of Jews to death camps while serving as chief of police in the Hungarian city of Kassa (now Kosice in Slovakia), from 1941 until 1944.
However, prosecutors played down the chances of an early trial yesterday. "The investigation has to explore an event which is remote both in time and place," they said in a statement. "It took place 68 years ago in an area that now falls under the jurisdiction of another country, which raises several investigative and legal problems." They added that the investigation was dedicated to "finding living victims who might speak directly about events".
Csatary was sentenced to death in absentia by a Czechoslovakian court in 1948. But by then he had already escaped to Canada. He worked as an art dealer in Montreal and Toronto until he was unmasked by war crimes investigators in 1995. He then fled back to his native Hungary.
He had been living peacefully in Budapest for 17 years until he was "discovered" last weekend after a tip-off by the Wiesenthal Centre. Officially, Csatary has been under investigation by the Hungarian authorities since last September and he is reported to have been under police surveillance since April. The Wiesenthal Centre, which first tipped off the Hungarian authorities last October, said it had been hugely irritated by their failure to arrest Csatary sooner. Ephraim Zuroff, the organisation's chief Nazi-hunter said he was "very upset and frustrated" by their inaction.
Csatary is alleged to have been renowned for his brutality when he was a police chief in charge of the Kosice Jewish ghetto. One survivor told investigators after the war: "He beat whoever he found there with a dog whip. On one occasion he ordered every young girl to come and dig out thick wooden stakes from the ground with their bare hands. Even the SS were scandalised by this."
Hungary's apparent reluctance to arrest Csatary has fuelled criticism of Viktor Orban's right-wing populist government, which is widely accused of taking a sympathetic attitude towards Second World War fascists and anti-Semites.
Last year a Budapest court's decision to acquit Sandor Kepiro, a 97-year-old Hungarian, on charges of ordering the execution of Jews and Serbs in Serbia in 1942 ,was condemned by the Wiesenthal Centre as an "outrageous miscarriage of justice".
In recent months, the Hungarian authorities have rehabilitated the country's wartime dictator, Miklos Horthy, who promoted the works of anti-Semitic writers in schools. These included Jozsef Nyiro, a supporter of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross regime, installed by the Nazis in 1944.
A decision by Laszlo Kover, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, to attend a ceremony honouring Nyiro prompted the 83-year-old Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to hand back the Hungarian Great Cross, the country's highest award earlier this year. "It is becoming increasingly clear that the Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past," he said.
Still at large? Nazis who have avoided justice
Hitler's henchman, Adolf Eichmann, described Brunner as his "best man". He commanded the Drancy internment camp outside Paris during the Second World War and was responsible for the deportation of more than 140,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Brunner fled to Syria after the war and is thought to have lived there ever since. Syria has refused to extradite him. He was last sighted in 2001 and would be 100 years old if still alive. He told an American newspaper in a phone interview in 1987: "The Jews deserved to die. They were garbage. I would do it again."
Nicknamed "Dr Death", Heim was a doctor at Mauthausen concentration camp. He tortured and killed hundreds of inmates with brutal medical experiments, including the removal of organs without anaesthetics. Heim was tracked down in 1962, but fled from his home in West Germany before investigators could arrest him. The New York Times and German television reported in 2009 that Heim had been living in Egypt under a false identity for decades and had died in 1992. The reports have not been officially confirmed. He would be 98 if still alive.
A second lieutenant in the SS, he was convicted by an Italian court in 2005 of "continued murder and special cruelty". Sommer took part in the massacre of 560 civilians in the village of Sant Anna di Stazzema in August 1944. His victims were mostly women, children and elderly men who were killed as a reprisal for partisan attacks on German troops. Sommer, who is now 93, has been living in a care home near Hamburg since 2007. Germany has refused to extradite him to Italy or acknowledge his war crimes in a court.