After the Second World War, and within a relatively short period of time, many immigrants suspected of war crimes were granted the right to take up residence in Canada and, for some, to obtain Canadian nationality. In answer to recurring accusations over the years that the government had sheltered Nazi war criminals, an official enquiry, the Deschênes Commission – named after its president who was later to become a judge at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY )– was created in 1985. Its report was published on 30 December 1986. It recorded 744 persons, residing in Canada, who were presumed to be guilty of war crimes and recommended that modifications be made to the criminal code to allow criminal proceedings to be brought against them in Canada. The Commission also recommended changes to the law on extradition and to the laws concerning the repeal of citizenship and expulsion.
On 1 December 1987, Imre Finta became the first suspect to be arraigned under the new law on war crimes, which was adopted following the recommendations of the Deschênes Commission. The resulting trial ended up being a severe test for the new legislation.
On 25 May 1990, Finta was found not guilty, in a Toronto court jury trial, of all eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity with which he was charged.
Two factors in this case led up to Finta's acquittal. On the one hand, there was the impossibility to satisfy the guidance of the trial judge that for each accusation, the defendant had to have been aware that his crimes constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity and, on the other hand, the receptivity of the jury to the defence argument of obedience to superior orders. Even though the “Baky” decree promulgating anti-Semitic measures was contrary to the Hungarian constitution – which Finta must have known, given his legal education – the jury found that, in the context of the violent anti-Semitic climate reigning at the time, these orders might not have appeared to be clearly illegal.
The Crown appealed this verdict but, in April 1992, the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to grant permission to take official appeal proceedings against the acquittal verdict.
A further appeal to have this decision reversed was then lodged with the Supreme Court of Canada.
On 24 March 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected this appeal (by four judges against three), in a close verdict reflecting many dissident opinions.
The final judgement and acquittal of Finta therefore brought to an end any hope of taking up proceedings against Nazi war criminals who had taken refuge in Canada.
From 1995 onwards, the Canadian government, in a change of tack, announced that it preferred administrative measures such as revoking citizenship and expulsion to judicial proceedings. Concretely, this meant that the government no longer had to prove that the persons concerned were war criminals but rather that they had entered Canada or had obtained Canadian nationality on the basis of false statements.
Imre Finta died in Canada in December 2003.
Trial Watch would like to remind its users that any person charged by national or international authorities is presumed innocent until proven guilty.