BUDAPEST, Hungary — A Hungarian appeals court on Monday ordered a retrial of a communist-era official convicted of war crimes related to reprisals against civilians after the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution.
Bela Biszku, the only high-ranking communist leader convicted since Hungary's 1990 return to democracy, was sentenced to five years and six months in prison in May 2014. Prosecutors appealed the sentence, asking for life in prison for the 93-year-old, while Biszku's defense sought a dismissal of the charges.
Biszku was in the Communist Party's ruling interim executive committee after the 1956 uprising was defeated by Soviet forces. The committee created armed militias to carry out the repression, including firing indiscriminately into crowds at protests — and Biszku was convicted for his responsibility in nearly 50 deaths.
The Budapest Appeals Court, however, declared the ruling of the lower court void and called for a retrial with a new set of judges.
The appeals court said it agreed with the defense lawyer's position, "that the first-instance ruling is not suitable for revision" because of the severity of its flaws.
It found errors in the lower court's logic in reaching its conclusions, criticized the opinions of a historian relied on by prosecutors and said more historians and experts were needed to clear up key events where Biszku's role was uncertain.
Historians have long considered Biszku to have been one of the main architects of the repression which followed the 1956 uprising — when at least 225 people were executed and over 10,000 imprisoned for their real or alleged role in the revolt — but the court said that the nearly 60 years since the events in question did not in itself justify a "special judgment" of the case.
"There are essential and substantive differences between establishing historical responsibility and criminal responsibility," the court said in a statement.
It said a new trial would provide an opportunity to obtain new evidence and correct the shortcomings it had identified.
Biszku proclaimed his innocence when questioned by prosecutors before the initial trial but did not testify in court. He suffers from several illnesses, sat in a wheelchair during the proceedings and appeared unfazed by the ruling.