Nazi war crimes suspect László Csatáry, 98, accused of whipping Jews and sending them to Auschwitz in the Second World War, has died in Budapest while awaiting trial.
Csatáry was charged in June with having “intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people” for his role in the deportation of Jews in the ghetto in Kosice, in eastern Slovakia, according to prosecutors. He had denied the charges.
His lawyer, Gábor Horváth, said Csatáry, who was born in Hungary, died in hospital of pneumonia. Csatáry ranked highly on an annual list, most recently in April, of the most-wanted Nazi criminals published by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.
The accusations about his past have followed him since the end of the war. In 1948 he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death in the former Czechoslovakia, but according to the Wiesenthal Center he fled to Canada and became a citizen there.
In 1997 the Canadian authorities accused him of lying to immigration officials about his wartime activities and stripped him of citizenship. He left the country and his whereabouts were unknown until he was discovered by an English newspaper living in Budapest in 2011. He was detained in July 2012.
The Hungarian indictment in June said that in May 1944 Csatáry was commander of a concentration camp in Kosice, where Jews were collected for deportation.
He “regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog-whip without any special reasons and irrespective of the sex, age or health condition of the assaulted people”, the indictment said.
On 2 June 1944, according to the indictment, when a freight train was loaded with Jews bound for Auschwitz, Csatáry “prohibited cuttin windows on the wagons which could have helped the about 80 people being crammed unser inhuman conditions in the windowless wagons to get more fresh air”.
According to the Wiesenthal Center, some 15,700 Jews were sent to Auschwitz from the Kosice camp and nearby areas in the spring of 1944.
The charges against Csatáry reflected a broader debate in Hungary over how to asess the country’s role in the Second World War, when the country was an ally of Germany.
A powerful shift to the right has been highlighted by the rise of the Jobbik party, which is accused of antisemitism.
In 2011 Jobbik championed the cause of another Hungarian war crimes suspect, Sándor Képíró, 97, who had been accused of participating in a 1942 massacre in Serbia. He was acquitted.
Nazi-hunters had depicted the prosecution of Csatáry as a bellwether of Hungarian sentiment after the earlier acquittal of Képíró. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Wiesenthal Center and its chief Nazi hunter, described the trial of Csatáry as “a way of showing goodwill and doing the right thing”.
But after word of Csatáry”s death emerged, Zuroff said his organisation was deeply disappointed that he died weeks before he was to face trial and had “ultimately eluded justice and punishment at the very last minute”.
“The fact that a well-known war criminal whose Nazi past was exposed in Canada could live undisturbed for so long in the Hungarian capital raises serious questions as to the commitment of the Hungarian authorities to hold their own Holocaust criminals accountable,” he said.
Csatáry’s death left nine names on the Wiesenthal Center most-wanted list, but Zuroff said they are just the tip of the iceberg.