Jewish groups expressed shock Monday after a 97-year-old Hungarian man was cleared of war crimes charges for his role in raids by Hungarian forces that killed hundreds of civilians in Serbia during World War II.
Many had considered the case of Sandor Kepiro one of the last major trials of alleged Holocaust-era war criminal suspects.
"It's an absolutely outrageous decision," Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter with the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, told The Associated Press. "(It) flies in the face of all the evidence, everything we know about this dark event and the mass murder that took place in Novi Sad," said Zuroff, who brought Kepiro's case back to light in 2006.
Kepiro had been charged by prosecutors with alleged involvement in the killing of 36 people _ mostly Jews and Serbs _ during the anti-partisan raid in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, then under Hungarian control, on Jan. 23, 1942. He returned to Hungary in 1996 after decades in Argentina.
In Serbia, deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said he expected Hungarian prosecutors to appeal the verdict by a three-judge tribunal of the Budapest Court. "Of course, we are not pleased," Vekaric said.
Prosecutors and the defense have until late Friday to appeal.
Elan Steinberg, of the New York-based American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, condemned the verdict.
"Holocaust survivors view this verdict as a betrayal by Hungarian judicial authorities of the demands of justice and memory," he said in a statement. "Hungary has turned its back on history in failing to come to grips with its collaborationist policies with the Nazi regime during World War II."
Hungary was a member of the Axis powers _ allied with Germany, Italy and Japan _ from 1940, participating in the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then part.
Prosecutors said during the trial, which began May 5, that unidentified members of a patrol under Kepiro's command killed four people during the raid. Kepiro, at the time a gendarmerie captain, also was suspected of being involved in the deaths of two brothers and around 30 other people who were executed on the banks of the Danube River.
Many of the dozens of people attending the court session cheered and clapped after Judge Bela Varga read out the verdict of the tribunal.
Before reading out the verdict, Varga said Kepiro had been brought to the tribunal by ambulance and had spent the past week in a hospital. The judge said he had apparently been given the wrong medication.
In a statement from Kepiro read out at the start of the court session, he rejected all the charges.
"I am innocent. I never killed, never stole. I served my country," said the statement read out by Kepiro's psychologist, who added that Kepiro said he returned to Hungary from Argentina in 1996 "because for him without Hungary there is no life."
In an unusual procedure, the verdict is being given over two days, Monday and Tuesday, because, on doctors' orders, only two court sessions of 45 minutes can be held daily due to Kepiro's frail health.
After Varga cleared him of the charges, Kepiro _ who sat in a wheelchair during the session, had an IV drip in his arm and did not speak _ was taken back to the hospital by paramedics upon the request of his lawyer, Zsolt Zetenyi. After a brief recess, Varga continued reading out the full ruling, with only Zetenyi representing the defense.
Serbia's war crime prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and representatives of the Wiesenthal Center attended the session, leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
In 1941, in the wake of the Nazi occupation and breakup of Yugoslavia, Hungarian forces entered northern Serbia _ which had been part of Hungary until World War I. In early 1942, those Hungarian forces carried out raids to counter the growing number of alleged partisan attacks.
Kepiro said earlier that his task was to supervise the identification of people being rounded up, but he said he was unaware of the killings until after they had been carried out. About 800 Serbs and 400 Jews are thought to have been killed in the raids.
During the reading of the verdict, Varga said the tribunal accepted Kepiro's claim that he was initially unaware of the killings.
The court also took into consideration Kepiro's successful efforts to save the lives of a local family _ the owners of the hotel where Kepiro and other officials were staying in Novi Sad _ which was about to be taken away by Hungarian soldiers to be killed.
"This is a huge mitigating circumstance in Kepiro's favor," Varga said. "As his lawyer also said, this could be a sign of Kepiro's humane behavior."
In January 1944, Kepiro and several other officers were convicted of disloyalty by a military court for their role in the Novi Sad raids. The 10-year prison sentence, of which Kepiro served a few weeks, was later annulled and his rank reinstated.
"This was a collective verdict, not one which sought to assign individual responsibilities," Varga said, explaining why the court did not take into account the 1944 ruling in the current case against Kepiro.
Hungarian historians, including some specializing in the Holocaust, have been critical of the Wiesenthal Center's efforts to have Kepiro prosecuted.
They say the high-ranking officials responsible for the killings of civilians during the raids were punished in the 1940s and that now, when all the adult witnesses of the events have died, there is practically no material evidence available to convict him.
Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.