Charles Zentai is, to his neighbours in Perth, simply an 85-year-old Hungarian migrant. But the Los Angeles based “Nazi Hunters”, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, says that Mr Zentai was involved, in the dying days of the Second World War, in the killing of an 18-year-old Jewish man, Peter Balazs, who was dragged off a Budapest tram because he wasn’t wearing a yellow Star of David.
The Hungarian authorities have been investigating the case for three years and they want to extradite Mr Zentai, who has been living in Australia for 57 years, to face trial in Hungary.
Mr Zentai denies the charge and his legal team is taking his case to the High Court. They are arguing that the Commonwealth cannot impose an administrative duty like extradition on state officers without the state government legislating to approve the imposition of that duty. In short, it’s a constitutional point that the High Court is going to hear.
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The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has seen red over the High Court’s decision to hear Mr Zentai’s case. It argues that Australia is failing to “prevent the obstruction of justice… by legal tricks in no way connected to the charges.” And the Centre points to Australia’s sorry track record when it comes to extradition of alleged war criminals.
The most notorious case of course is that of the late Konrad Kalejs, who evaded extradition from Australia and the UK, for alleged war crimes in Latvia in the Second World War. A gravely ill Kalejs was wheeled into court on a stretcher in 2001 as he continued to defy attempts to extradite him until his death later that year. And in 2000 the Howard government allowed him back into country because he was an Australian citizen.
And despite the Hawke government establishing a special investigation unit headed by Bob Greenwood QC, which uncovered hundreds of cases of individuals who may have been involved in crimes against humanity in World War 2, it all came to naught and the unit was wound up.
Having said all this, we need to remind ourselves that even though someone is named by the media or even the Simon Wiesenthal Centre was a war criminal, does not mean that they are. Mr Zentai is entitled to test the proceedings being taken against him, and dummy spitting by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and others shouldn’t be allowed to undermine that fundamental right.