BUDAPEST - Jewish groups expressed shock yesterday after a 97-year-old Hungarian man was cleared of war crimes charges for his role in raids by Hungarian forces that killed hundreds of civilians in Serbia during World War II.
Many had considered the case of Sandor Kepiro one of the last major trials of alleged Holocaust-era war criminals.
“It’s an absolutely outrageous decision,’’ said Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter with the Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office. It “flies in the face of all the evidence, everything we know about this dark event and the mass murder that took place in Nov Sad.’’
Zuroff is the one who brought Kepiro’s case to light in 2006.
Kepiro had been charged by prosecutors with involvement in the killing of 36 people - mostly Jews and Serbs - during the antipartisan raid in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, then under Hungarian control, on Jan. 23, 1942.
He returned to Hungary in 1996 after decades in Argentina.
In Serbia, Bruno Vekaric, deputy war crimes prosecutor, said he expected Hungarian prosecutors to appeal the verdict by a three-judge tribunal of the Budapest Court.
“Of course, we are not pleased,’’ Vekaric said.
Prosecutors and the defense have until late Friday to appeal.
Elan Steinberg, of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in New York, condemned the verdict.
“Holocaust survivors view this verdict as a betrayal by Hungarian judicial authorities of the demands of justice and memory,’’ he said. “Hungary has turned its back on history in failing to come to grips with its collaborationist policies with the Nazi regime during World War II.’’
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.