A 97-year-old ex-Hungarian army officer, once the world's most wanted Nazi, protested his innocence on the opening day of his trial Thursday, dismissing the charges as lies and the proceedings as a circus.
"I am innocent," the frail Sandor Kepiro told the Budapest court where he is facing a possible life sentence for the murder of 36 people during raids by Hungarian forces on the Serbian town of Novi Sad in January, 1942.
More than 1,200 Jews and Serbs perished in the massacres.
The former Hungarian military officer arrived at the Budapest Municipal Court looking frail in a green-grey suit and walking very slowly with a stick, accompanied by his 60-year-old daughter.
He entered the building via a back entrance to avoid the crowd of reporters and demonstrators in front.
Old age and hearing problems
Inside the courtroom, Kepiro, who is hard of hearing, complained that he had not been able to hear any of the judge's opening comments. So his assistant, Eva Kadar, who is a relative, repeated the questions to the defendant.
Judge Bela Varga, stressing it was of paramount importance that Kepiro be able to following the proceedings with full attention, ordered that the hearings last no more than three hours, with a 10-minute break every hour.
A second hearing was scheduled for Friday, followed by three more next week, with the verdict expected as early as May 19.
Jews and Serbs
Reading the charges, prosecutor Zsolt Falvai said Kepiro was directly responsible for the death of 36 Jews and Serbs: four who were murdered in their home by members of his patrol; two brothers whom he refused to set free; and 30 others whom he ordered aboard a lorry to take them to a field where they were shot.
If found guilty, he faces a life sentence.
"The charges are lies, all lies," said Kepiro earlier. "I knew nothing of the massacres. The soldiers told me nothing. This is a circus."
Answering the charges in court, Kepiro insisted he had been "the only person to refuse the order to use firearms," because the order had not been in writing.
He claimed to have actually saved the lives of five people whom a corporal had wanted to send to their deaths.
"I told him and his band to get lost and I said to the family: you're free."
Kepiro, once number one on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's latest list of most wanted Nazi war criminals, has already been found guilty -- in absentia -- of the crimes in Novi Sad twice: first in 1944, and then again in 1946, this time under the communists, when the previous 10-year jail sentence was quashed.
Sentenced to 14 years, he avoided prison by fleeing to Argentina where he remained for half a century before returning to Budapest in 1996. That was where the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, tracked him down 10 years later.
First trial of Hungarian war criminal
"This is the first trial of a Hungarian war criminal and since Hungary has collaborated with Nazi Germany, it's very important it takes place," said Zuroff.
"There can be no clemency, no sympathy and no ignoring of the facts."
Around 30 students demonstrated outside the court, wearing yellow Stars of David and brandishing banners and placards with phrases such as "How do you sleep Mr. Kepiro?" and "Murder has no age".
Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic also attended the trial, as did representatives of the Jewish community of Novi Sad and Israel's Ambassador to Hungary, Aliza Bin-Noun.
"They have to be brought to justice, it's not important how old, or what medical condition they are in," said Boris Kopilovic, a member of the Jewish community in the Serbian province of Vojvodina.
With proceedings against another Nazi war criminal, Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, nearing their end in Germany, Kepiro's trial could be one of the last of its kind, said Zuroff.
Kepiro's defence lawyer, Zsolt Zetenyi, said that the defendant's physical and mental capacities had deteriorated dramatically in recent years.
"I hope he can hold up until the end," Zetenyi said.