COVID: CAF officer regrets anti-vaccine comments

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A Canadian Armed Forces officer who publicly urged other military members to obey orders and not help distribute COVID-19 vaccines was reprimanded and fined Thursday after apologizing for his “public display of disloyalty.”

Officer Cadet Laszlo Kenderesi delivered the apology at the start of an unprecedented court-martial in which he was issued a severe reprimand and fined $4,200 after pleading guilty to conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

Military police initially charged Kenderesi with trying to persuade another person to take part in a mutiny, for which he faced a maximum of life in prison, but prosecutors withdrew the charge before the court-martial began.

Kenderesi also faced a charge of behaving in a scandalous manner while not being an officer, but that charge was automatically dismissed after presiding military judge Cmdr. Martin Pelletier accepted his guilty plea to harmful conduct.

Describing the case as “unique,” Pelletier told Kenderesi during the sentencing hearing that he was not being punished for his personal views on vaccines, but for participating in — and publicly expressing his support for — anti-vaccine demonstrations while in uniform.

“It is even more unacceptable for Officer Cadet Kenderesi to encourage members of the Canadian Armed Forces to disobey orders … in relation to anticipated duties of assisting in the distribution of vaccine,” Pelletier said.

Pelletier repeatedly referred to the case’s lack of precedent, which he thought was a good thing.

“The court and counsel are not aware of any other instance where a Canadian Armed Forces officer participated in a demonstration against a high-profile government action in uniform and took to a microphone to call on members of the Canadian Armed Forces to refuse orders to carry out lawful duties , ” he said.

The case concerned a speech at an anti-lockdown rally in Toronto’s Dundas Square on December 5, 2020, in which the 60-year-old cadet instructor appeared in full military uniform and spoke out against what he called “killer” vaccines.

Kenderesi went on to call on other military members to disobey orders to help with the federal government’s vaccination drive, which was just ramping up at the time as the country grappled with another wave of COVID-19.

“I urge all military personnel to do the same, not to accept any unjust orders, which would be to hand out and distribute vaccines,” Kenderesi told the meeting participants, 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 only days earlier received formal orders to begin planning the distribution of vaccines across the country as Health Canada entered the final stages of reviewing vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna.

Addressing the court, Kenderesi expressed remorse for his actions as Pelletier prepared to sentence him.

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

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

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

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

The court also heard that while 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 after 2018.

But even then defense attorney Maj. Alexandre Gélinas-Proulx sought to use these as mitigating factors, prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Besner argued that the underlying problem was a matter of enforcing discipline in the ranks.

“Discipline is the quality that every CF member must possess that 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 members of the Canadian Forces must willingly and promptly obey lawful orders that can have very devastating personal consequences.”

Besner and Gélinas-Proulx nevertheless agreed to ask for the severe reprimand and a $4,200 fine, adding that the officer-cadet has already served 80 hours of community service.

While Pelletier ultimately accepted the proposal, acknowledging the emotional and financial stress Kenderesi was facing at the time, he emphasized the seriousness of the officer-cadet’s actions.

The results of Kenderesi’s case could have implications for future court-martials for members of the armed forces who have publicly spoken out against vaccine mandates and other government policies.

That includes Police Officer James Topp, the Army reservist who earlier this year was charged with two counts of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline for speaking out against vaccine requirements while in uniform.

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

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 22, 2022.

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