A Canadian Armed Forces officer who publicly urged other service members to disobey orders and not help distribute COVID-19 vaccines was reprimanded and fined on Thursday after apologizing for his “public display of disloyalty”.
Officer Cadet Laszlo Kenderesi apologized at the start of an unprecedented court martial, where he received a severe reprimand and a $4,200 fine after pleading guilty to conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.
Military police initially charged Kenderesi with trying to persuade another to join a mutiny, for which he faced a maximum sentence of life in prison, but prosecutors dropped the charge before the court martial began .
Kenderesi was also facing a charge of outrageous behavior unbecoming an officer, but that charge was automatically stayed after presiding over military judge Cmdr. Martin Pelletier accepted his guilty plea for harmful conduct.
Describing the case as “unique”, Pelletier told Kenderesi during sentencing that he was not being punished for his personal views on vaccines, but for participating in – and publicly expressing support for – anti-vaccine protests. while he was in uniform.
“It is even more unacceptable that Officer Cadet Kenderesi is inciting members of the Canadian Armed Forces to disobey orders…with respect to the scheduled duties of assisting with the distribution of vaccines,” Pelletier said.
Pelletier repeatedly mentioned the case’s lack of precedent, which he said was a good thing.
“The court and counsel are not aware of any other instance where a Canadian Armed Forces officer attended a protest against a high-profile government action in uniform and took a microphone to call on members of the Canadian Armed Forces to refuse orders to perform lawful duties,” he said.
The case related to a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Dundas Square in Toronto on December 5, 2020, in which the 60-year-old cadet instructor appeared in full military uniform and spoke out against what he called vaccines “killers”.
Kenderesi then urged fellow service members to disobey orders to help the federal government’s vaccination efforts, which were only escalating at the time as the country battled another wave of COVID-19.
“I call on all service members to do the same, not to accept unjust orders, which would be to donate and distribute vaccines,” Kenderesi told rally attendees, according to a transcript read in court.
A video of his comments, in which he acknowledged he could be punished, was later posted online.
The armed forces had received formal orders days earlier to begin planning for nationwide vaccine distribution, as Health Canada entered the final stages of reviewing candidate vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
Addressing the court, Kenderesi expressed remorse for his actions as Pelletier prepared to sentence him.
“I was wrong to present myself as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces to publicly express my private opinions,” Kenderesi said. “I abused the trust that comes with the privilege of wearing the uniform of the Canadian Armed Forces. I am sorry.”
He later added, “It was not for me to question orders from the chain of command. I violated the fundamental principle of service by not supporting the legitimate authority of the chain of command. I’m ashamed of my public display of disloyalty.
In a separate affidavit read from the filing, the court heard that Kenderesi was born and raised in Hungary while the country was under the influence of the Soviet Union, and the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns had left him affected both emotionally and financially.
This included his wife losing his job and his trucking business collapsing, after which he declared bankruptcy.
The court also heard that although Kenderesi first joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1978 and served for years as a reserve cadet instructor at Borden, he had virtually no contact with the military. army after 2018.
But even though defense attorney Major Alexandre Gélinas-Proulx sought to use them as mitigating factors, prosecutor Lt.-Cmdr. Jennifer Besner argued that the underlying problem was one of enforcing discipline within the ranks.
“Discipline is the quality that every member of the CF must have, which allows them to put the interests of Canada and the interests of the Canadian Forces before their personal interests,” said Besner.
“This is necessary because members of the Canadian Forces must willingly and promptly obey lawful orders which can have very devastating personal consequences.”
Besner and Gélinas-Proulx nevertheless agreed to request the severe reprimand and the $4,200 fine, adding that the cadet has already completed 80 hours of community service.
Although Pelletier ultimately agreed to the proposal and acknowledged the emotional and financial strains Kenderesi was facing at the time, he emphasized the seriousness of the cadet’s actions.
The results of the Kenderesi case could have implications for future courts martial of members of the Armed Forces who have publicly spoken out against vaccination mandates and other government policies.
This 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 something of a celebrity to some Canadians opposed not only to vaccines and pandemic restrictions, but also to the federal Liberal government, and is currently in the midst of a march across the country.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 22, 2022.