Ex-Hungarian Leader Sentenced For 1956 War Crimes

A 92-year-old former official in the Hungarian communist party back in the middle of the 20th century was finally sentenced Tuesday to five-and-a-half years in prison for war crimes committed in 1956 against Hungarian civilians.

Bela Biszku could have received a life sentence, under guidelines set by the Geneva Convention, but at 92, five-and-a-half-years might be just that.

Budapest’s Investigative Prosecutor’s Office jailed Biszku in September 2012 after determining that the former Hungarian Interior Minister had participated in beatings and killings in retaliation for a populist uprising that briefly raged in 1956 against a Stalinist takeover.

In his role at the time on the Temporary Executive Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, Biszku was among a small group of Hungarians tasked with maintaining order during the Soviet takeover of the government, according to the Wall Street Journal. As protests broke out around the nation during the Soviet coup, Biszku’s militias are alleged to have killed three in Budapest and some 46 others in the city of Salgotarjan by firing into crowds of protesters gathered to resist communist occupation. Dozens of others in Martonvasar were severely beaten after returning home from protests in other Hungarian cities.

Though he never admitted to knowing about or participating in any killings or deaths, Hungarian investigators say that Biszku not only looked the other way while the beatings and killings occurred but also failed to start criminal proceedings after the incidents had become common knowledge.

He denied all of this all the way to his sentencing on Tuesday. he becomes the first communist-era Hungarian official to be tried for war crimes since the country’s return to democracy in 1990.

In addition to war crimes, according to the Associated Press, Biszku also was convicted for denying crimes committed by communists. Hungarian law forbids such denials, just as Holocaust denials are illegal. Biszku did, however, receive credit for time already served, so his sentence already is half-through.

Prosecutors, who sought a life sentence, and Biszku’s defense attorneys, who sought acquittal, both vowed to appeal the decision. Biszku’s chief defense attorney, Gabor Magyar, alleged that the trial was happening as a result of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seeking to “reinterpret Hungarian historical events of the 20th century for political interests.”

But prosecutors said that the facts should speak for themselves. In addition to the deaths and beatings, prosecutors also alleged that during Biszku’s tenure as interior minister from 1957 to 1961, he held sway over trials that led to the deaths of 200 other revolutionaries who were sentenced to death for opposing Soviet reign, putting his total death toll at 249.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]