Hungarian top Nazi war crimes suspect, 98, dies

A 98-year-old Hungarian who topped the dwindling list of surviving Nazi war crimes suspects has died in hospital while awaiting trial for allegedly sending 12,000 Jews to the death camps.

Laszlo Csatari "died on Saturday morning. He had been treated for medical issues for some time but contracted pneumonia, from which he died," his lawyer Gabor Horvath told AFP on Monday.

Csatari's death closes the book on years of efforts to bring him to justice, both in Hungary where he was being held under house arrest, and in Slovakia, where he was accused of committing war crimes during World War II.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center alleged Csatari was a senior police officer in charge of the Jewish ghetto in Kassa -- now known as Kosice in present-day Slovakia -- where he was involved in the mass deportation of Jews in 1944.

The Center, which put him at the top of its list of surviving alleged Nazi war criminals, said he helped send nearly 16,000 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp. Hungarian prosecutors put the figure around 12,000.

Sentenced to death in absentia by a Czechoslovakian court in 1948, Csatari made it to Canada where he lived and worked as an art dealer before being stripped of his citizenship in the 1990s.

He returned to Hungary, where he lived undisturbed under his real name for some 15 years until prosecutors began investigating his case in late 2011 on the basis of information from the Wiesenthal Center.

Csatari was placed under house arrest in July 2012 and in June of this year, prosecutors charged him with war crimes. They said that as commander of a collection and deportation center in the Kassa ghetto he was "actively involved in and assisted the deportations" in 1944.

Csatari, also known as Csatary or Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, "regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog-whip," prosecutors said.

The silver-haired Csatari however denied committing war crimes in closed-door hearing last year, according to his lawyer.

The case was suspended on July 8 on grounds of double jeopardy, since Csatari was already convicted in 1948 of the charges presented, but last week a higher court ordered that proceedings resume.

Slovakia, which commuted the communist-era death sentence to life imprisonment, had meanwhile sought its own new trial and taken steps to have Csatari's extradited.

On September 26, a court in Kosice had been due to rule where he should serve his life sentence.

The legal wrangles sparked concern among Holocaust survivors and Kosice's Jews that Csatari may escape justice.

On Monday the Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi-hunter, Efraim Zuroff, called Csatari a "totally unrepentant Holocaust perpetrator" and said it was a "shame" that he "ultimately eluded justice and punishment at the very last minute."

Csatari's long "undisturbed" stay in the Hungarian capital "raises serious questions as to the commitment of the Hungarian authorities to hold their own Holocaust criminals accountable," Zuroff added in a statement.

"We never believed that Csatary would live long enough to face justice on Earth," Lucia Kollarova, spokeswoman for the Federation of Slovak Jewish Communities, told AFP.

The Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center estimates that only around 60 potential defendants are still alive.

Last month as part of its "Operation Last Chance" it hung around 2,000 posters in German towns and cities appealing to the public for information on the last perpetrators of the Holocaust still at large.

In recent years, there have been renewed efforts in Europe to bring to justice the few people still alive and thought to have been involved in the Holocaust.

Most notable was Ukrainian-born former Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk, sentenced in Germany in 2011 to five years in prison for complicity in some 28,000 murders. He died in 2012 aged 91 while freed and awaiting an appeal.

That verdict, stating that simply working at an extermination camp was enough to establish complicity in murder, set a legal precedent and Germany is now investigating around 50 suspected guards.

In 2011 a court in Budapest acquitted meanwhile Hungarian Sandor Kepiro, 97, of war crimes in 1942, sparking outrage from the Wiesenthal Center. Six weeks later he died.

For Serge Klarsfeld, a prominent French Nazi-hunter, Csatari's death "shows how difficult it is to convict the oldest war criminals."

Aged between 90 and 100, "they are dying out and the biggest difficulty is in proving their crimes in the absence of witnesses," he told AFP Monday.

"The remaining war criminals are no longer the decision-makers but those who carried out the orders," he added.