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Justice at all costs

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 27 June 2008

In 1993 a jury in the Supreme Court in Adelaide took just one hour to return a unanimous not guilty verdict against a 77-year-old man accused of a war crime that allegedly occurred during World War II. At the time the cost of obtaining the verdict that cleared Mr Ivan Polyukhovich was estimated at $17 million.

Another result of the jury’s brusque dismissal of the case against Mr Polykuhovich was to end the Australian Government’s efforts to prosecute anyone for crimes committed during that distant conflict. For reasons now lost in time, the government amended the war crimes act in the 1980s to permit such actions, and started a major effort to round up any World War II war criminals that had settled in Australia. But only two other old men were ever charged. One case was discharged during committal proceedings and the other dropped due to the accused’s ill health. That was 15 years ago.

Klaus Barbie, the so called Butcher of Lyons, and arguably the last significant Nazi war criminal to be brought to book, was convicted in France in 1987 - more than 20 years ago. He was 73 at the time.


That should be the end of the story, one would think. Astonishingly the Hungarian Government still wants to extradite an 86-year-old Perth man, Charles Zentai, for a war crime - the murder of an Hungarian Jew - allegedly committed in 1944, 64 years ago.

For Australian courts to concern themselves with war crimes committed in another country by someone who was not even an Australian citizen at the time 50 years after the event was madness, and the Adelaide jury dealt with it accordingly. The prosecution of Mr Zentai is raving lunacy. To meet the standards of proof required for any fairly conducted trial for a murder committed, say, 10 years ago, is hard enough. Proving anything after 60 years would require rock solid forensic or documentary evidence, which is extremely unlikely to be forthcoming in this case.

I have only glanced at the media discussion about the evidence against Mr Zentai. There is only so much one can tell from such material and, in any case, I don’t believe there is anything to gain from discussing who saw what. Should the prosecution proceed, the Hungarian courts may well be in the absurd position of relying on witness statements where both the person who gave the statement and the person who took it are long dead.

As there is no realistic way of testing the evidence to anything like the standards required by a law court after all this time, a fair trial is not possible. No possibility of a fair trial; no prosecution - or at least that is what should happen. If the authorities wanted to proceed they should have done so in the two decades after the war when there would have been some hope of establishing guilt, if there was any guilt to establish.

Media stories have suggested that the authorities in Hungary were presented with evidence against Mr Zentai some years after the war, and even started proceedings in 1948 but nothing seems to have come of this. That was the time to act. Now it is too late.

Then there is the age of the accused. Do the Hungarian courts seriously expect an 86-year-old man to travel? Do they seriously intend to send him to jail?


All of these excesses might still be excused if Mr Zentai was accused of being a senior officer in charge of, say, a death camp or a torture chamber - the sort of person the war crimes procedures and international law were originally designed for - but he was nothing of the kind. He was a junior officer seemingly unconnected with the Nazi war machine. Anyone of real importance in that conflict is long dead.

Mr Polykuhovich was similarly an insignificant figure. He was not accused of killing anyone, but of providing water and towels for the soldiers that conducted a massacre of Jewish people in Poland, and of being present during two murders. When he was acquitted, incidentally, the executive council of Australian Jewry released a statement saying that it accepted the court’s decision.

For those interested in justice at all costs, the considerable resources now seemingly devoted to exploring this piece of ancient history could far more usefully be deployed in investigating the many, much fresher war crimes that have been committed since the 1940s. In 2006, for example, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic pre-empted court proceedings against him by dying of a heart attack. He was being tried on 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes involving conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Once investigators run out of crimes in the Balkans, they could look at atrocities in Rwanda or the Chechen conflicts - all vastly more serious and recent than the case under discussion. There are far too many war crimes for anyone to spend time trying to work out what an individual may or may not have done in 1944, before the vast bulk of the Australian population was born. The whole episode is simply absurd.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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