MEDIA RELEASE: Death of Karoly (Charles) Zentai

Please find below the ECAJ’s media release regarding the death of Hungarian-born Karoly (Charles) Zentai, who reportedly died in Western Australia on 13 December 2017. To download this media release in PDF format, click here.



20 DECEMBER 2017

Death of Karoly (Charles) Zentai

Australia has one of the finest and fairest legal systems in the world, but as a society we have a long record of failure to address historical injustices until it is too late. For decades, government and non-government institutions turned a blind, but often knowing, eye to child sexual abuse, aboriginal deaths in custody, the stolen children and the entry of war criminals into Australia from conflicts all over the world.

A 2006 US-government commissioned report accused Australia of having “an ambivalent” attitude to hunting Nazi war criminals in particular, and a “lack of the requisite political will”.

The case of Hungarian-born Karoly (Charles) Zentai, who reportedly died in Western Australia on 13 December 2017, confirms this assessment. He was accused of detaining and beating to death Peter Balasz, an 18 year old Jewish youth, and throwing his body in the Danube River in Nazi-occupied Budapest in November 1944.

In 2012, Australia’s High Court ruled that the Australian government could not order Zentai’s extradition to Hungary to face a criminal trial, because the offence of “war crime” did not exist under Hungary’s laws in 1944. The decision was widely criticised as a triumph of narrow legalism over substantive justice. Dissenting judge Dyson Heydon said that the Court’s decision was an “extremely technical one”, noting that in reality Zentai was wanted for “beating a Jew to death in Budapest in 1944”.

It might seem hard to imagine that a grey-haired old man could have committed unspeakable crimes in his youth, unrelated to any military operations that were going on at the time. Australians are fortunate in never having known the daily horror of living under a totalitarian government. The very idea of killing a teenage boy because of his religious or ethnic background is well beyond the range of experiences of most of us.

But there is something we can all understand. The surviving relatives of Peter Balazs were not looking for vengeance. They wanted the whole truth about what happened to Peter to be revealed after all these long years, to put their anguish to rest. The loved ones of any victim of an alleged murder would have demanded no less. Now they will be denied even that small consolation.

No accused Nazi war criminal has ever been punished in Australia. The US, Canada and the UK all have a far better record than Australia in bringing war criminals to justice, extraditing them and stripping them of citizenship.

Over the years Australia has accepted as citizens accused war criminals not only from World War II but also from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Cambodia. They blend in seamlessly with the rest of Australian society. Exploiting our tolerance and naivety, they walk freely among us and our children.

Forgiveness can be a powerful healing sentiment in the appropriate circumstances, but not when the wrongdoer seeks no forgiveness, shows no remorse and does everything possible to evade justice.

Anton Block
Peter Wertheim AM
Executive Director


Peter Wertheim AM | Executive Director
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