October 08, 2009

Zentai loses appeal against extradition

On his 88th birthday, alleged Nazi war criminal Charles Zentai has lost a Federal Court appeal to avoid extradition to Hungary to face war crimes charges.

The full bench of the court delivered its judgment in Perth today, granting a stay of 14 days on the execution of the extradition warrant on Zentai. The Hungarian government alleges the Hungarian-born Zentai, a resident of the southern Perth suburb of Willeton, was one of three men who tortured Jewish teenager Peter Balazs in Budapest in November 1944, leading to his death. Zentai denies the accusation and has fought against his extradition since a warrant was issued for his arrest in 2005.

Perth magistrate Barbara Lane last year ruled the former Hungarian soldier was eligible to be surrendered for extradition to face the charge. Zentai's lawyers appealed the decision in the Federal Court, but it was upheld by Justice John Gilmour in March.

The lawyers took the legal fight to the full bench of the Federal Court in August. They argued that under a treaty between Australia and Hungary, the crime was not an offence when it was allegedly committed.

Zentai has the option of applying to the High Court for leave to appeal.

Last year, the High Court dismissed an appeal by Zentai and two others challenging the validity of Australia's extradition law, claiming the law involved a "constitutionally impermissible" attempt by the commonwealth to impose a duty upon magistrates as holders of a state statutory office. Attorney-General Robert McClelland has the final say on Zentai's extradition.

Mr McClelland has delegated the decision to Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor, who has already invited submissions on the matter.

A spokesman for Mr O'Connor said once the appeals process was exhausted and Mr O'Connor was asked to make a decision, it would come "expeditiously". Zentai's bail was renewed and he was to attend a cardiologist's appointment ordered by the attorney-general's office on Thursday afternoon. His son Ernie Steiner said outside the court the family would consider its options in the next two weeks.

"We're leaving all options open at the moment, because we haven't read the full extent of the judgment. There may be things in there that are worth pursuing," he said.

The cost of seeking leave for the case to be heard in the High Court was cause for hesitation to push the case further, with the legal bill topping $200,000 to date, Mr Steiner said.

"There is a hesitation (to go to the High Court); the cost is a factor but we'll do what needs to be done," he told reporters.

Mr Steiner said he had lodged a 570-page submission with Mr O'Connor and said the minister could be his father's best hope of avoiding extradition.

"As far as that goes we've never been able to present any arguments about my father's innocence in the courts in Australia," he said. "Obviously I am very concerned for my father, and I've had to ask him some very direct questions, and I'm convinced through my own family history, statements he made in 1994 when my mother was still alive, about the date of his departure from Budapest. He wasn't even there. So this is really a travesty, this whole thing."

Zentai turned 88 today. Mr Steiner said he understood that his father would be remanded in custody after 14 days when the stay lapses.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre lists him among their top 10 wanted war criminals. The Jewish human rights group says Zentai and two others beat Balazs because he was not wearing a Jewish star. If Zentai is extradited, he will be the first Australian ever extradited to face charges of alleged war crimes.


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