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Charles Zentai Extradition: Suspected WWII Criminal Won't Be Sent To Hungary By Australia

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In this Sept. 22, 2006 file photo, Charles Zentai leaves the Perth Magistrates Court following proceedings to extradite to him to Hungary, in Perth, Australia. (AP Photo/Ron D Raine, File)
In this Sept. 22, 2006 file photo, Charles Zentai leaves the Perth Magistrates Court following proceedings to extradite to him to Hungary, in Perth, Australia. (AP Photo/Ron D Raine, File)

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australia's highest court ruled Wednesday that a 90-year-old citizen cannot be extradited to Hungary to face accusations he tortured and killed a Jewish teenager during World War II.

The High Court upheld a lower court's decision that reasoned war crimes charges former Hungarian soldier Charles Zentai may face did not exist at the time of the slaying, a conclusion criticized by the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Hungary says Zentai is suspected of beating the teen to death in Budapest in 1944 for failing to wear a star identifying him as a Jew. Zentai, who migrated to Australia in 1950 and later became a citizen, has denied the allegation and has been fighting extradition since 2005.

Last year, the Federal Court found that because the offense of "war crime" was not on Hungary's statute books when the teenager died in 1944, it was not an offense for which Zentai may be surrendered under Australia's extradition treaty with Hungary.

The government appealed, but on Wednesday, the High Court upheld the lower court's decision. Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed in a statement that the ruling means Zentai cannot be extradited.

Zentai's son, Ernie Steiner, has argued that his father – who has been free on bail – is too ill to survive the trip to Hungary.

Zentai told reporters in the western city of Perth that he was prepared to supply answers if Hungary sent investigators to Australia to question him.

"I've been so stressed, in the last few days in particular. Now, I just don't know how I feel," Zentai said.

Steiner said his father was innocent and was not even in Budapest when the teen died.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center lists Zentai among its 10 most wanted for having "participated in manhunts, persecution, and murder of Jews in Budapest in 1944."

The decision "appears to ignore numerous legal precedents which in the past facilitated the prosecution of the leaders of the Third Reich and additional Nazi war criminals," the center's Israel director Efraim Zuroff said in a statement. "In practical terms, it signals a dismal conclusion to Australia's totally unsuccessful efforts to bring to justice any of the numerous Nazi war criminals who found refuge in the country."