Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — A Canadian Armed Forces officer who urged other service members to disobey orders and not participate in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines apologized Thursday, saying he regretted his actions and his “public display of disloyalty” to his superiors.
Cadet instructor Laszlo Kenderesi, 60, apologized at the start of his court-martial, where he was to stand trial on three separate counts, including that of attempting to “persuade another person to take part in a mutiny”.
But shortly after the hearing began Thursday morning at CFB Borden, Ont., military prosecutors informed the court that they had dropped the mutiny charge, which carried a maximum sentence of up to life imprisonment.
Kenderesi later pleaded guilty to the charge of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline”, but not guilty to the charge of having “conducted himself in a manner scandalous and unbecoming of an officer”.
This court-martial is linked to a speech given at a rally against lockdowns in December 2020 in Toronto. Mr Kenderesi, dressed in his full military uniform, had then spoken out against what he called ‘killer vaccines’.
“I call on all service members to do the same, not to accept unjust orders, which would be to donate and distribute vaccines,” Kenderesi said, according to a transcript read to the court. A video of his speech was later posted online.
The Canadian military had just days earlier been officially mandated to plan the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the provinces, as Health Canada began the final stages of its review of candidate vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
Mr. Kenderesi expressed remorse for his actions on Thursday, before comments on the sentence to be imposed on him by military judge Martin Pelletier for “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline”.
“I was wrong to present myself as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces to publicly express my private opinions, declared the defendant. I abused the trust that comes with the privilege of wearing the uniform of the Canadian Armed Forces. I am sorry.
“It was not for me to question orders from the chain of command,” he added. I violated the fundamental principle of service by not supporting the legitimate authority of the chain of command. I am ashamed of my public display of disloyalty.”
In an affidavit filed on record, the court heard that Kenderesi was born and raised in Hungary while that country was under the influence of the Soviet Union, and the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns had affected him both emotionally and financially. His wife lost her job, and his trucking business collapsed, after which he declared bankruptcy.
The court also heard that although Mr. Kenderesi first joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1978 and served for years as a reserve cadet instructor at Base Borden, he had virtually no no contact with the army after 2018.
Defense attorney Major Alexandre Gélinas-Proulx attempted to use these arguments as mitigating factors, but prosecutor Jennifer Besner argued that the underlying problem in this case was one of applying the discipline.
“Discipline is the quality that every soldier must have, which allows him to put the interests of Canada and the interests of the Canadian Forces before his personal interests,” pleaded Lieutenant-Commander Besner.
“This is essential because members of the Canadian Forces must willingly and quickly obey lawful orders that can have devastating consequences for people.”
The defense and the prosecution nevertheless agree to recommend that Judge Pelletier condemn Kenderesi to a severe reprimand and a fine of $4,200. They added that the officer had already completed 80 hours of community service.
Judge Pelletier also seemed to be aware of the precedent his decision would set for other cases, calling it unique because of the context of the pandemic as well as the very public nature of the accused’s comments.
The outcome of this case could indeed have implications for future court-martials of military personnel who have publicly spoken out against mandatory vaccinations and other government policies.
This is the case of Warrant Officer James Topp, an army reservist who was also charged earlier this year with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline, for having denounced, dressed in his uniform, vaccine requirements.
Mr. Topp has since become a celebrity for some Canadians opposed not only to vaccines and health restrictions, but more generally to the federal Liberal government. He currently travels the whole country on foot.