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Sandor Kepiro, a 97-year old former Hungarian gendarmerie officer acquitted of charged relating to the 1942 killings of civilians in Serbia Bela Szandelszky/AP/Press Association Images
War Crimes

Nazi war crimes suspect acquitted

Sandor Kepiro, 97, has been acquitted of war crime charges related to the execution of 35 Serbs and Jews in Serbia in 1942.

A 97-YEAR-old man has been cleared of war crimes charges stemming from a raid by Hungarian forces that killed 35 people in Serbia during World War II.

The judgement has shocked many who considered the case “one of the last major trials” of alleged Holocaust-era war criminal suspects.

Sandor Kepiro was on the list of the world’s most wanted Nazis, compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international Jewish human rights organisation.

Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Centre’s chief Nazi hunter, has called today’s decision “absolutely outrageous”.

Zuroff brought Kerpiro’s case to light in 2006 and said of the ruling:

It flies in the face of all the evidence, everything we know about this dark event and the mass murder that took place in Novi Sad.

Kepiro had been charged by prosecutors with alleged involvement in the killing of the mostly Jews and Serbs during an anti-partisan raid in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, then under Hungarian control, on 23 January 1942. He returned to Hungary in 1996 after decades in Argentina.

In Serbia, deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said they expected Hungarian prosecutors to appeal the verdict.

“Of course, we are not pleased,” Vekaric said.

Prosecutors and the defense have until late Friday to appeal.

Hungary was a member of the Axis powers — allied with Germany, Italy and Japan — from 1940, participating in the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then part.

Prosecutors had stated in the trial which began May 5 that unidentified members of a patrol under Keprio’s command killed four people during the raid. Kepiro, at the time a gendarmerie captain, was also suspected of being involved in the deaths of around 30 others who were executed on the banks of the Danube River.

Claps and cheers

Many of the dozens of people attending the court session cheered and clapped after Judge Bela Varga read out the verdict of the three-judge tribunal

Before reading out the verdict, Varga said Kepiro had been brought to the tribunal by ambulance and had spent the past week in hospital. The judge said he had apparently been given the wrong medication.

In a statement from Kepiro read out at the start of the court session, he rejected all the charges:

I am innocent. I never killed, never stole. I served my country.

In an unusual procedure, the verdict was being given over two days, Monday and Tuesday, reports the BBC, due to Kepiro’s ill health.

After Varga cleared him of the charges, Kepiro - who sat in a wheelchair during the session, had an IV drip in his arm and did not speak — was taken out of the courtroom by paramedics upon the request of his lawyer, Zsolt Zetenyi. After a brief recess, Varga continued reading out the full ruling, with only Zetenyi representing the defense.

Serbia’s war crime prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and representatives of the Wiesenthal Center attended the session, leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced.

In 1941, in the wake of the Nazi occupation and breakup of Yugoslavia, Hungarian forces entered northern Serbia — which had been part of Hungary until World War I. In early 1942, those Hungarian forces carried out raids to counter the growing number of alleged partisan attacks.

Kepiro said earlier that his task was to supervise the identification of people being rounded up, but he said he was unaware of the killings until after they had been carried out. About 800 Serbs and 400 Jews are thought to have been killed in the raids.

In January 1944, Kepiro and several other officers were convicted of disloyalty by a military court for their role in the Novi Sad raids. The 10-year prison sentence, of which he served a few weeks, was later annulled and his rank reinstated.

Read more: Who are the world’s most wanted Nazis?>

- Additional reporting by AP

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