Laszlo Csatary leaves the Budapest court building
Hungarian authorities detained, grilled and put under house arrest on Wednesday a 97-year-old who tops the Simon Wiesenthal Center's dwindling wanted-list of suspected Nazi war criminals.
Laszlo Csatary, accused by the Wiesenthal Center of organising the World War II deportation to their deaths of some 16,000 Jews from the ghetto of Kosice in present-day Slovakia, however protested his innocence.
"Our viewpoint is that at this age, being under house arrest is already quite a shock," state prosecutor Tibor Ibolya said. "We have to make sure that this man remains alive and is able to stand trial."
"One of his arguments in his defence is that he was obeying orders."
Clutching a plastic bag, dressed in a grey jacket and surprisingly sprightly for his age, the former senior police officer said nothing as he was whisked away in a car by two friends or relatives.
This followed his early-morning arrest in the Hungarian capital Budapest and several hours of questioning by an investigating magistrate at a military prosecution office.
"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," Ibolya said.
Csatary, full name Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, helped run the Jewish ghetto in Kosice, a town now in Slovakia that was visited in April 1944 by Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the Nazis' Final Solution, the Wiesenthal Center says.
While there between 1941 and 1944, Csatary beat and brutalized Jews and sent 16,000 to their deaths in Ukraine and to the gas chambers at the Auschwitz extermination camp, it says.
In 1948, a Czechoslovakian court condemned Csatary to death in absentia but he made it to Canada where he lived and worked as an art dealer before being stripped of his citizenship there in the 1990s.
He ended up in Budapest where he has lived freely ever since, until the Wiesenthal Center alerted Hungarian authorities last year.
British tabloid The Sun raised attention to his case with 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, prosecutors began an investigation in September.
Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi-hunter, welcomed the arrest and urged Hungarian authorities "to complete the rest of the judicial process and bring Csatary to justice as quickly as possible."
He said: "This is the debt owed to his many victims who were tortured and sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. The passage of time does not diminish the guilt of the killers and old age should not afford protection to the perpetrators of Holocaust crimes."
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 1944 when he fell out with his erstwhile ally Adolf Hitler.
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.
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 white-washing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past."
A far-right website meanwhile posted photos of several dozen "anti-Hungarian" Jews" who gathered on Monday outside Csatary's flat calling for his arrest, offering a reward for information on the protestors.