A 97-year-old Hungarian man suspected of taking part in the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust was taken into custody Wednesday, questioned and charged with war crimes, prosecutors said.

The case of Laszlo Csatary, who became a Canadian citizen and worked as an art dealer in Montreal for years, was brought to the attention of Hungarian authorities by the Simon Wiesenthal Center last year.

Prosecutors decided to charge Csatary with the "unlawful torture of human beings," a war crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. They want him held under house arrest and his passport confiscated.

Tibor Ibolya, Budapest's acting chief prosecutor, said Csatary recounted his Holocaust-era activities to authorities, saying he was following orders and carrying out his duty.

"The suspect denied having committed the crimes," Ibolya said, adding that during his testimony Csatary's "attitude toward some of his fellow men of a certain religion ... is not what we would consider normal."

Prosecutors detained him in an early morning sweep because they were worried that Csatary may try to flee. He has lived at least in two separate Budapest apartments during the last few months.

"We took Csatary into custody at dawn from an address to which he had no connection until now," said Ibolya. "He co-operated with investigators."

Csatary's lawyer, Gabor Horvath B., said Csatary had moved to a new location because he was tired of being badgered. On Monday, 40 people held a protest outside one of Csatary's purported homes but he was nowhere to be seen.

Torture allegations

According to a summary of the case released by prosecutors, Csatary was a police officer in the Slovakian city of Kosice, at a time part of Hungary.

In May 1944, Csatary was named chief of an internment camp at a Kosice brick factory from where 12,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Authorities said Csatary was present when the trains were loaded and sent on their way.

Csatary "regularly" used a dog whip against the Jewish detainees "without any special reasons and irrespective of the assaulted people's sex, age or health condition," the prosecutors' statement said.

As one train departed with some 80 Jews crammed into one railcar, Csatary refused a request by one of the Jews to cut holes in the walls of the wagon to let more air in, the statement said.

"We took into consideration the severity of his acts, but we should not forget that the suspect is due the presumption of innocence," Ibolya said. "In our estimation, he will not be able to escape."

Ibolya said considering Csatary's age, he was in good physical and mental condition, although experts had yet to examine him.

Convicted in absentia

Csatary was convicted in absentia for war crimes in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and sentenced to death. He arrived in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia the following year, became a Canadian citizen in 1955 and worked as an art dealer in Montreal.

In October 1997, Canadian authorities said the 82-year-old had left the country, apparently bound for Europe, before they had the chance to decide his fate in a deportation hearing. His citizenship had been revoked in August and the deportation order was based on his obtaining citizenship by giving false information.

Canadian authorities alleged that Csatary had failed to provide information concerning his collaboration with Nazi occupation forces while serving with the Royal Hungarian Police and his participation in the internment and deportation to concentration camps of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Ibolya said the investigation into the Csatary case was continuing and that prosecutors were waiting for information from Israel, including the possible testimony of survivors, and Canada.

"I expect this case to continue for months, even taking into account that we are treating it as one that we would like to conclude as soon as possible," Ibolya said.

In Israel, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, applauded the arrest.

"When you look at a person like this, you shouldn't see an old frail person, but think of a man who at the height of his physical powers devoted all his energy to murdering or persecuting and murdering innocent men, women and children," Zuroff told the AP.