Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-BALKANS: Husband And Wife War Crimes Suspects Face Trial

Vesna Peric-Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Aug 5 1998 (IPS) - Fifty three years after their alleged crimes in the concentration camps of pro-Nazi World War II Croatia, and half a century spent as exiles in Argentina, husband and wife Dinko and Nada Sakic may soon face justice in the land of their birth.

Dinko Sakic, 76, was the commander of Jasenovac concentration camp, where between 85,000 and, say some, up to 700,000 people, were murdered by the pro-Nazi Ustache regime that ruled Croatia during World War II.

Most victims were Serbs, many were gypsies (Roma) and Jews.

Nada, later his wife, worked as a guard at a nearby concentration camp for women, Stara Gradiska. Dinko Sakic was arrested and extradited by Croatia last month, largely in a effort to prevent the Serbian government in Belgrade from extraditing him first. Last week the same logic prompted a court order for Nada’s arrest as well.

Dinko Sakic, is due to face trial in Zagreb on war crimes charges later this year. In Argentina a judge has ordered Nada placed under house arrest amid concerns over her health. Also 76, she is reported to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However in Zagreb, Branko Seric, her state appointed defence lawyer, told Croatian media that he would expect Mrs Sakic in Zagreb “in approximately two months”.

The couple had lived quietly in in the Argentinian coastal town of Santa Teresita for more than 50 years until Dinko agreed to be interviewed by Argentinian TV in March. Sakic claimed that Croat staff were forbidden to hurt prisoners.

The twin arrests are largely due to investigation by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a research body investigating Nazi war crimes. Tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats were murdered by the Ustache regime and its notorious Jasenovac death camp became known as the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’.

Independent Croatian experts put the death toll at around 85,000 while the Belgrade Museum of War Atrocities says 700,000 died in the camps. The Wiesenthal Centre says the figure could be as high as 600,000.

Dinko Sakic and Nada have lived in Santa Teresita since 1947. Nada, whose name means ‘hope’ in Serbo-Croat, changed her name to Esperanza, which means the same in Spanish, after settling in the town.

She hurriedly applied for Croatian citizenship, her entitlement since the country’s secession from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, only after her husband’s arrest and extradition.

“The reason was simple” says Zarko Modric, an independent journalist in Zagreb who has been investigating the case. “She feared that after her husband was extradited to Croatia she could be extradited to Yugoslavia. After obtaining Croatian citizenship, she could not be sent to Belgrade, as there is no treaty on extradition between the two countries.”

Though the fact that the Sakics’ alleged victims were largely Serb plays the main part, Belgrade is also aware of the damaging image set by the queues of Serbian war criminals from over the border in Bosnia-Hercegovina, awaiting trial in The Hague or theoretically subject to arrest on sight worldwide.

They tried hard to have the Sakics brought to Belgrade for a high profile trial in the Serb capital. It was hoped this would mitigate some of the foreign criticisms made of Belgrade’s past reluctance to cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal founded after the end of the recent fighting in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

But the Argentinian authorities took the stand that the alleged war criminals should be sent to the country where the crimes were committed. Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska are now on the territory of Croatia.

She will be charged under article 120 of the Croatian penal code, according to the state news agency HINA, accused of ‘torture, treating civilians inhumanely, measures of intimidation, terror and collective punishment of civilians in violation of international law’.

Survivors of Stara Gradiska, living in Zagreb and Belgrade, say she oversaw “starvation, beatings and summary executions”. And according to evidence collected in 1945 and 1946 and held in Belgrade, in the autumn of 1942, 600 out of 1,500 malnourished and sick Serbian children in Nada Sakic’s camp died in a round of killings with knives and gas.

“I’m in for lots of work,” lawyer Seric told HINA.

Nada Sakic told the interviewer in Argentina in March that her husband was “innocent as a breast fed baby” while declining to say much about herself. But her life story is well documented in a number of books on the 1941-1945 wars in the Balkans.

She was an early member of the fascist Ustache movement which took over and declared a ‘independent’ Croatia during the years of the German invasion and occupation.

Her inspiration was her brother, Major Vjekoslav ‘Max’ Luburic, architect of the network of concentration camps in wartime Croatia. Luburic escaped to Franco’s Spain and was murdered in a feud between fellow Ustache exiles in 1969.

But the two are unlikely to appear in the dock together as husband and wife suspects. Ivan Kern, Dinko Sakic’s lawyer, told journalists in Zagreb last week that the arrest of Nada Sakic would not lead to a joint trial.

“I don’t believe they (the authorities) will combine the two trials because the evidence is separate and there isn’t any real basis for a combined trial despite the fact that they are related,” he said.

The independent media in Croatia say that it does not matter if the trials are joint or separated. “It’s the de-nazification of this country that is important,” says Miljenko Jergovic of the AIM news agency. “So far, the investigation procedure on Sakic has had exactly the opposite effect” he adds.

So far, most of the witnesses called to testify on Sakic and his role in Jasenovac have testified to his innocence. Serb survivors of the camps have not been invited to the court, and many are nervous of a trip to a re-created independent Croatia that has chosen to adopt many of the trappings of the old wartime fascist regime.

“For most of the people, who read headlines only, it looks as if the witnesses are practically saying that Sakic is innocent and that the whole procedure is a mistake” Jergovic explains.

Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, during World War II the youngest general in Tito’s band of anti-fascist partisans, came to rely heavily on the financial and political support of Croatian emigres when his country won independence again in 1991. Many of the emigres had Ustache pasts and nurtured an influential dream of recreating the old wartime Independent State of Croatia (NDH).

It was fear of the return of the NDH, which Tudjman refused to condemn, that drove many Croatian Serbs to back an ultimately disastrous bid to seize Croatian territories with majority Croatian Serb populations and declare them independent. Though nearly a third of Croatia lands were seized, the Croatian army won back most of it in a series of lighting blitzes in 1995, turning nearly the entire Serb population of Croatia into refugees in days.

“Re-examining the past and evaluating Croatia’s attitude towards its dark part of history is very important” Tanja Tagirov of the Zagreb magazine Arkzin says. “Yet it is not to come soon.”

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