A former senior Communist Party official went on trial in Hungary yesterday, charged with war crimes over the suppression of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, in a landmark case that may help the country face up to its past.
More than two decades after the fall of communism, Hungarian prosecutors have charged 92-year-old Bela Biszku over his role on a committee of the Communist Party they say was involved in ordering the shootings of civilians during protests in Budapest and in the town of Salgotarjan in December 1956.
The trial has drawn strong domestic media attention ahead of a national election on April 6. It became possible under a law passed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party that says war crimes and crimes against humanity do not lapse.
In the packed Budapest courtroom, the front row was partly occupied by lawmakers of the far-right opposition party Jobbik, which initiated the proceedings against Biszku in 2012.
Biszku, one of Hungary's most powerful leaders in communist times and the first to stand trial, responded to the judge in a firm voice: "I do not wish to make a confession."
Biszku has previously denied all accusations against him.
The 1956 uprising against the Soviet-backed government in Budapest represented the first major threat to Moscow's post-war control of Eastern Europe.
Hundreds of people were executed and tens of thousands were imprisoned after the revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. Biszku then served as interior minister from 1957 to 1961.
Prosecutors say Biszku was a member of a party committee in 1956 that created a militia to maintain order and carry out retaliations after the revolution was crushed.
Prosecutor Tamas Vegh said Biszku had abetted the shooting of several people in a war crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. But Biszku's lawyer, Gabor Magyar, said the accusations were unfounded.
The ruling party says those who committed serious crimes during the communist era should be held accountable in the same way as former Nazi war criminals.