BUDAPEST (AFP-EJP)---Hungarian police arrested Nazi war crimes suspect Laszlo Csatary, 97, top of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's wanted list, at dawn Wednesday, Budapest prosecutors said, but he maintained his innocence.
Csatary, accused by the Wiesenthal Center of having helped organise the deportation of some 15,700 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp during World War II, "has been taken into custody," the public prosecutors office said in a statement.
"He denies being guilty of the crimes he is accused of," state prosecutor Tibor Ibolya said. "One of his arguments in his defence is that he was obeying orders."
Csatary was being questioned by an investigating magistrate about alleged war crimes and could be charged afterwards, after which he may be allowed to return home but under house arrest, Ibolya said.
"In view of the seriousness of the allegations, but also the need to respect the presumption of innocence and also taking into account his age and health, the judge could for the time being assign him to his residence.
"In this case the police would confiscate his passport ... Our viewpoint is that at this age, being under house arrest is already quite a shock. We have to make sure that this man remains alive and is able to stand trial."
Csatary, full name Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, was a senior police officer in Kosice, which at that time was occupied by Nazi ally Hungary and is now in Slovakia.
He added: "The suspect is in good physical and mental health. He is being cooperative. He was surprised (about being arrested) but he expected to be questioned."
In 1948, a Czechoslovakian court condemned Csatary, who the Wiesenthal Center said was in charge of the Jewish ghetto in Kosice, to death in absentia.
But he had made it to Canada, where he worked as an art dealer in Montreal and Toronto until the 1990s, when he was stripped of his citizenship and was forced to flee.
He ended up in Budapest where he has lived freely ever since until the Wiesenthal Center alerted Hungarian authorities last year, providing them with evidence it said implicated Csatary in war crimes.
British tabloid The Sun raised publicity about his case in a report at the weekend after tracking down the old man, photographing him and confronting him at his front door.
Acting on the information provided by the Wiesenthal Center, which was supplemented by fresh evidence last week over other deportations of some 300
other Jews in 1941, prosecutors began an investigation in September
An earlier statement by prosecutors had appeared to limit the chances that Csatary will end up in the dock, stressing that the events took place a long time ago and in another country, and that finding any witnesses would also take time.
Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi-hunter, told AFP on Sunday that he has been "very upset and very frustrated" about the lack of action by Hungarian authorities.
The fact that Csatary lived freely in Hungary for some 15 years and the lack of progress by prosecutors also added to worries about the direction of the EU member state under right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Almost exactly a year ago, a court in Budapest acquitted Hungarian Sandor Kepiro, 97, of charges of ordering the execution of over 30 Jews and Serbs in the Serbian town of Novi Sad in January 1942.
The Wiesenthal Center, which had also listed Kepiro as the most wanted Nazi war criminal and helped bring him to court, described the verdict as an "outrageous miscarriage of justice." Six weeks later Kepiro died.
Recent months, meanwhile, have seen something of a public rehabilitation of controversial figures, most notably of Miklos Horthy, Hungary's dictator from
1920 until falling out with his erstwhile ally Adolf Hitler in 1944.
Anti-Semitic writers like Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiro, a keen supporter of the brutal Arrow Cross regime installed in power by the Nazis in 1944, have also been reintroduced into the curriculum for schools, meanwhile.
Other incidents include the verbal assault of a 90-year-old rabbi, Jozsef Schweitzer, when a stranger came up to him in the street and said "I hate all Jews!"
The decision by the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Orban ally Laszlo
Kover, to attend a ceremony in May honouring Nyiro, prompted Nobel laureate
Elie Wiesel to return Hungary's highest honour in disgust.
Holocaust survivor Wiesel, 83, said "it has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past."
The speaker of Israel's parliament followed this up by withdrawing an invitation to Kover to a ceremony this week in Israel paying tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved Jews during the war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday: “Israel and the Jewish world is very anxious about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Hungary."
"It is of the utmost importance to tackle symptoms of this dangerous phenomenon, before it spreads," he added.