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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A former senior Communist Party official went on trial in Hungary on Tuesday 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 communist 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, who was one of Hungary's most powerful leaders in communist times and is the first to stand trial, walked into the courtroom with a cane.
Wearing a grey suit and dark blue-rimmed glasses, he responded to the judge in a firm voice: "I do not wish to testify."
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 control of eastern Europe since the end of World War Two.
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 committee of the Communist Party in 1956 that created armed militia to maintain order and carry out retaliations after the revolution was crushed. They say this party committee directly governed the leading body of the militia, the so called Military Council.
Prosecutor Tamas Vegh said Biszku had abetted the shooting of several people in Budapest on December 6 and in Salgotarjan on December 8, 1956, in a war crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. But Biszku's lawyer Gabor Magyar said the accusations were unfounded.
"With relation to the shootings it needs to be proven that a political opinion expressed in a political committee was a specific call for action, based on which somebody fired guns in Salgotarjan or Budapest," Magyar told reporters. "I think there is no written evidence ... that would underpin this."
Magyar added the trial should have been delayed until after the election as it could become part of the political campaign.
The ruling party of Orban, a staunch anti-communist, says the trial is long overdue and that those who committed serious crimes during the communist era should be held accountable in the same way as former Nazi war criminals.
In the sleepy mining town of Salgotarjan in the north of Hungary, people still vividly remember how at least 46 civilians were shot dead by armed militia during the December 8 protest.
Janos Fancsik worked as a doctor in a local hospital that morning when he heard gunfire and soon after people started to bring in the wounded and the dead.
"The dead were all lined up in the backyard of the hospital. As far as I can remember, there were around 30-40 bodies," Fancsik said. "They were all civilians, there was not one of them in uniform or with weapons."
Fancsik, who still lives near the square where the killings happened, said most people in Salgotarjan probably welcomed the Biszku trial, adding: "Old age does not exonerate somebody from crimes that do not lapse."
His friend Eva Tomes, who narrowly escaped the shootings when she walked her two small children home that day, said she thought the Biszku trial had come too late.
"Opinions are deeply split. Everybody says this should have happened much earlier, not now," Tomes said.
In a 2010 interview with public Duna television, Biszku said he had "served the people" as interior minister and had done nothing he could "be held responsible for".
(This version of the story corrects translation of quote from Biszku in the sixth paragraph to show he did not wish to testify, instead of not wishing to confess)
Editing by Gareth Jones