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Mutiny charge withdrawn as military officer apologizes for anti-vaccine comments

Officer served for years as a reserve cadet instructor at CFB Borden

By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

A Canadian Armed Forces officer who publicly urged other military members to disobey orders and not help distribute COVID-19 vaccines apologized Thursday, saying he regretted his actions and “public display of disloyalty.”

Officer Cadet Laszlo Kenderesi delivered the apology at the start of his court martial where he was scheduled to be tried on three separate charges, including one of endeavouring to persuade another person to join in a mutiny.

However, military prosecutors told the court shortly after the start of Kenderesi’s trial at Canadian Forces Base Borden that they had withdrawn the mutiny charge, which carried a maximum penalty of up to life in prison.

A short time later, Kenderesi pleaded guilty to one charge of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline before entering a not-guilty plea to the third charge of behaving in a scandalous manner unbecoming an officer.

The charges relate to a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Toronto’s Dundas Square on Dec. 5, 2020, in which Kenderesi appeared in full military uniform and spoke out against what he called “killer” vaccines.

“I’m calling upon all military personnel to do the same, not to accept any unjust orders, which would be giving out and distributing vaccines,” Kenderesi told rally participants, according to a transcript read in court.

A video of his comments was later published online.

The Armed Forces had only days earlier received formal orders to start planning for the distribution of vaccines across the country, as Health Canada entered the final stages of reviewing vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna.

On Thursday, Kenderesi expressed remorse for his actions as military judge Cmdr. Martin Pelletier prepared to sentence the 60-year-old cadet instructor following his guilty plea to conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.

“It was wrong for me to present myself as a Canadian Armed Forces member to publicly express my private views,” Kenderesi said. “I abused the trust that comes with the privilege of wearing the Canadian Armed Forces uniform. I’m sorry.”

He later added: “It was not my place to question the orders of the chain of command. I breached the core principle of service by not supporting the lawful authority of the chain of command. I’m ashamed of my public display of disloyalty.”

In a separate affidavit read into the record, court heard Kenderesi was born and grew up in Hungary while that country was under the Soviet Union’s influence, and that the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 affected him both emotionally and financially.

That included his wife losing her job and the collapse of his trucking business, after which he declared bankruptcy.

Court also heard that while Kenderesi first joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1978 and served for years as reserve cadet instructor in Borden, he had virtually no contact with the military after 2018.

But even as defence lawyer Maj. Alexandre Gélinas-Proulx sought to use these as mitigating factors, prosecutor Lt.-Cmdr. Jennifer Besner argued that the underlying issue was one of enforcing discipline in the ranks.

“Discipline is the quality that every CF member must have, which allows him or her to put the interests of Canada and the interests of the Canadian Forces before personal interests,” Besner said.

“This is necessary because Canadian Forces members must willingly and promptly obey lawful orders that may have very devastating personal consequences.”

Besner and Gélinas-Proulx nonetheless agreed in asking that Pelletier sentence Kenderesi to a severe reprimand and $4,200 fine. They added the officer cadet has already served 80 hours of community service.

Pelletier appeared to acknowledge the precedent that his ruling would set for future cases, calling it unique due to the context of the pandemic as well as the public nature of the officer cadet’s comments.

“It’s not an internal rant,” Pelletier added.

The results of Kenderesi’s case could indeed have repercussions on future courts martial for Armed Forces members who have publicly spoken out against vaccine mandates and other government policies.

That includes Warrant Officer James Topp, the army reservist who was charged earlier this year with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline for speaking out against vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform. 

Topp has since become a celebrity of sorts for some Canadians opposed to not only vaccines and pandemic restrictions, but also the federal Liberal government, and is currently in the midst of a cross-country march.

Banner image: Police teams conduct surveillance above the Department of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. A Canadian Armed Forces officer who called for other military members not to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2022.