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Nazi war crime suspect Kepiro, 97, cleared

BUDAPEST, July 18, 2011 (AFP) - A 97-year-old Hungarian, who was once the world's most wanted Nazi war crimes suspect, went free from court Monday after being cleared of ordering the execution of over 30 Jews and Serbs in 1942.

The prosecution had demanded at least a prison sentence for Sandor Kepiro, who until his arrest topped the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's list of most wanted Nazi criminals.

Whether the prosecution will now appeal Monday's decision was yet unknown.

The defence had insisted there was no tangible evidence that Kepiro had carried out war crimes, while the prosecution's case rested heavily on old testimonies and verdicts from previous trials in the 1940s.

"There are cases where there is no access to direct evidence as the direct witnesses are no longer alive," prosecutor Zsolt Falvai acknowledged in a last statement on Monday.

"We are obliged to base our case on written proof, documents, even if these are old testimonies," he added.

During the trial several experts cast doubts on the authenticity of these documents, many of which were incomplete or contained translation mistakes.

In addition, the defence claimed that testimonies made in front of communist courts could have been coerced.

Kepiro, who appeared in court on Monday but looked poorly, insisted in a last statement before the verdict was read out: "I am innocent, I never killed, I never robbed."

He was allowed to leave the court shortly thereafter, and was returned to hospital where he has been kept for a week after receiving unsuitable medication.

Meanwhile, the reasoning for the verdict was read out in court and was to continue on Tuesday, albeit without Kepiro whose presence is no longer needed as he has been found not guilty, the judge said.

The judge also announced that the costs of the trial -- around four million forint (14,700 euros, $20,600) -- will be covered by the state.

The trial which started on May 5 proceeded slowly as the judge ordered two 45-minute sessions a day to accommodate Kepiro, who is also hard of hearing.

The one-time Hungarian gendarmerie captain faced a life sentence for his alleged participation in a raid by Hungarian forces in Novi Sad, now in Serbia, on January 21-23, 1942, in which more than 1,200 Jews and Serbs were murdered.

Specifically, he was accused of ordering the round-up and execution of some 36 Jews and Serbs as head of one of the patrols involved in the raid.

Kepiro was already found guilty of the crimes in Novi Sad twice in absentia: first in 1944 to 10 years in prison, a sentence that was quashed a few months later, and then again in 1946, this time under communism.

However, he avoided prison by fleeing to Argentina where he remained for half a century before returning to Budapest in 1996. That was where the head of the Wiesenthal centre Efraim Zuroff tracked him down 10 years later as one of the centre's most wanted Nazis.

With proceedings against another Nazi war criminal, Ukrainian-born John Demjanjuk, closed in Germany in May, Zuroff had earlier predicted that the Kepiro trial could be one of the last of its kind.

Ex-Nazi camp guard Demjanjuk, 91, was sentenced to five years in prison for aiding the murder of nearly 30,000 Jews but was released from custody because of his advanced age.


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