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Charles Zentai, born Károly Steiner (born October 8, 1921), is a Hungarian-born resident of Australia accused of a Holocaust-related war crime. He has resided in Perth, Australia for many years after living in the American- and French-occupied zones of post-World War II Germany. He was on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most wanted Nazi war criminals until 2013.
Zentai, who denies the charges against him, was serving in the Hungarian Army as warrant officer at the time he is accused of having murdered Péter Balázs, an 18-year-old Jewish man, in November 1944. According to witnesses, Balázs was not wearing his yellow star on the train, a crime punishable by death in German occupied Hungary at the time. Zentai allegedly took him to an army barracks, beat him to death, and threw his body into the Danube. Zentai was tracked down by The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is also heading the effort to extradite him to Hungary to stand before a military tribunal. The case has been a long-held passion of Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who presented his allegations against Zentai to Hungarian prosecutors.
On 8 July 2005 Zentai was arrested by the Australian Federal Police to await an extradition hearing. Zentai's family say the 86-year-old widower, who has heart disease and peripheral neuropathy, would not survive the trip to Hungary. When first declared a suspect during the war and a warrant issued for his arrest Zentai, at that time living in Germany, expressed his willingness to go to Hungary to clear his name.
On 16 April 2007 his first appeal against the extradition case was dismissed by a full bench of the Australian Federal Court. Simon Wiesenthal Center director Efraim Zuroff said he was very pleased that Zentai's appeals had been rejected and that "the extradition process can finally proceed."
On 1 October 2007 new evidence came to light: a testimony by Zentai's military commander which was used at a trial in the Budapest People's Court in February 1948. This commander blamed a fellow soldier who was later convicted. On 2 March 2009, and despite these accusations, Zentai passed a polygraph test conducted by Gavin Willson from Australian Polygraph Services. In interviews, Willson expressed "no doubt" that Zentai was telling him the truth.
Zentai's lawyers continued to argue against extradition, saying that war crimes were not considered illegal in Hungary in 1944 when the alleged crime took place. Zentai remained free on bail while his case was again appealed to the full bench of the Australian Federal Court. The Australian government approved Zentai's extradition to Hungary on November 12, 2009, making Zentai's case the first in which the Australians approved of extraditing any Nazi suspect.
After an appeal to the Federal Court the extradition order was overturned on 2 July 2010. During the appeal Zentai's defence lawyers argued that Zentai could not be extradited, as the Hungarian authorities had not charged him with an offence, and instead he was only being ordered to return to face questioning. The court found that the government did not have the jurisdiction to order Zentai to be extradited.
In early January 2011 the Australian Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor lodged an appeal against the decision (that as the Hungarian authorities had not laid charges, the Australian government did not have the legal power to extradite him). The Hungarian authorities have not explained why they could not question him in Australia under the treaty on criminal cooperation. In their public response to the decision, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre assumed Zentai will face trial if extradited.
Australia's highest court ruled on 15 August 2012 that 90-year-old Zentai cannot be extradited to Hungary because the offence of a "war crime" did not exist in Hungarian law in 1944.
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- Zentai v Honourable Brendan O'Connor (No 3) 2010 FCA 691 (2 July 2010)
- High Court of Australia ruling (15 August 2012)