Age has nothing to do with justice

With his withered skin, his body bowed by extreme age, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the old man in the newspaper photograph was another distressing example of the vulnerability of the elderly. Particularly here in Britain where a crass culture of disinterest has sometimes seen the needs of old people compromised.

Such an interpretation couldn't be more misplaced.

For the picture that was printed around the world this week was hardly the personification of societal neglect. Rather, it was an image of 98 year-old László Csizsik-Csatáry, an alleged Nazi war criminal, who has been charged with participating in the murder of 15,700 Jews during the Holocaust. It makes the notion of vulnerability, as suggested by his photograph, laughably ironic.

For, according to Hungarian prosecutors, this is the former police commander of the Kosice detention camp - then in Slovakia - who, it is claimed, brutalised Jews with a dog whip then packed them on to cattle trucks destined for Auschwitz.

He must feel the full weight of due process

And yet, despite the monstrous nature of the charges, there still exists a voice that ponders the point of launching criminal proceedings when the accused is nearly 100.

Here is a man who has lived an active and fulfilling post-war life, settling in Canada where he worked as an art dealer. How is justice in any way served by investigating Csizsnik-Csatáry in his dotage, when he has already lived his best years as a free man?

And, on a practical level, surely a life sentence lacks potency at his advanced age - particularly when an investigation of this nature is bound to be a lengthy process?

On the other hand, to allow age-related concerns to factor into the judicial process is surely to undermine the foundations upon which a fair and civilised society is based - the very values that imploded under the genocidal intent of the Nazis.

Age and justice are not mutually exclusive. The horrors of a crime are not diminished in severity by time, easy as it is for successive generations to distance themselves from their origin. Which is why this crumpled old man must feel the full weight of due process. Had he been tried at Nuremberg straight after the war, or even in the 1960s as Eichmann was, there would be no question of the need to bring him to justice now.

And so we should ignore the frailty of the flesh and look at the crimes for which Csizsik-Csatáry has been charged. If he is guilty, he is as much so today as he was when wielding his whip at terrified Jews massed on a railway platform decades ago. The passage of time is not a mitigating factor, or a co-conspirator against the pursuit of justice.

We have witnessed this, on a vastly diminished scale, with the case of BBC presenter Stuart Hall, now 83, who was recently found guilty of sexually assaulting young girls. The leniency of his 15-month sentence is now under review - how much more should that be the case for an accused mass murderer?

There is a broader issue at stake, too. Pursuing Nazis tells the world that those responsible for the Holocaust will never be allowed to elude justice. This is more critical than ever, given that the number of survivors is sadly declining. Prosecution remains a lasting act of remembrance and honour for the victims, transmitting a message that the perpetrators of the Shoah will never be allowed to get away with their deeds. It also helps to frustrate deniers on the lookout for any slackening of the law.

It is possible this crumpled old man in the dock, who was found last July in Budapest after a protracted search, will offer the feeble defence of following orders. If he does, it will be a golden opportunity to remind the world that, ever since the Nuremberg trials, international law has rejected this alibi. War crimes are about individual responsibility, and the perpetrators must bear the consequences, even if they were ordered to act by a person with a higher rank.

The passage of time should compound rather than compromise the need to prosecute ageing war criminals - however physically vulnerable they may appear. Their advanced age is a reminder of the life their victims were denied. The day we time-lock justice is the day we let the guilty go free.

Angela Epstein is a freelance journalist

Last updated: 10:45am, June 30 2013