Trial revisits Croatia's checkered past

Charges against World War II concentration camp commander intertwinewith Croatia's identity.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Croatia, a fledgling democracy in the Balkans, will face a crucial juncture when it puts a commander of a World War II concentration camp on trial as early as next month.

The case involving Dinko Sakic intertwines with Croatia's fascist and Communist past. The Ustashe, the Nazi puppet government, ran the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) from 1941 to 1945 - although a majority of Croatians were antifascist. Following World War II, Croatia became one of Yugoslavia's six republics under Communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

Now Croatia, which declared its independence in 1991, is struggling to redefine itself independent of its Yugoslav history. Many have sought to redepict the country's NDH period as a legitimate precursor to the contemporary nation.

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At the same time, Croatia is battling for acceptance to Western Europe. During its 1991-95 war for independence, the international community heavily protested the ethnic hatred and human rights violations that both Croatians and Serbs committed. Croatia also continues to draw criticism for institutionalized discrimination against the remaining Serb minority.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Sakic has been indicted by Croatian courts on charges of mistreating prisoners, killing and ordering the killing of inmates, and operating a concentration camp. If guilty, he will face the maximum sentence permitted by Croatian law, 20 years' imprisonment.

'Auschwitz of Balkans'

Sakic served as commander for eight months in 1944 at the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was set up by the Ustashe Nazi puppet government. Tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and dissident Croatians were killed at Jasenovac, which was known as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans." During Sakic's time as boss there, an estimated 2,000 prisoners died.

Issues surrounding Sakic highlight the extent to which Croatia's past has been clouded by propaganda. Tito inflated figures of the number of Serbs killed in Jasenovac as a tool to help balance power in Yugoslavia, while Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman has infuriated Serbs and Jews by suggesting the number of deaths could be as low as 20,000. This figure is much lower than the half million estimated by Jewish groups, or the 85,000 estimated by an independent Croatian demographer.

Mr. Tudjman, furthermore, has glorified the NDH as an "expression of the Croatian nation's historic desire for an independent state." With a nostalgic nod, the government has reintroduced the Ustashe currency, the kuna. Streets in the capital of Zagreb have been renamed after prominent Ustashe figures.

Such an interpretation of Croatia's fascist past is a result of Tudjman jockeying for personal gain, says Ivo Goldstein, a Zagreb historian and prominent member of the Jewish community.

"Croatia is not an Ustashe state," says Mr. Goldstein. "The problem of the Ustashe in Croatia is a problem of how Tudjman wants to see his biography. He wants to be the political prophet who synthesized 100 years of Croatian politics."

That aim was recently expressed in his proposal to turn the Jasenovac memorial into a memorial for all Croatian victims of war by burying Ustashe war dead alongside their Serb, Jewish, and antifascist victims.

Full disclosure?

Yet with international pressure mounting on Croatia from the Hague tribunal, there is a possibility that top Croatian officials may soon be indicted for war crimes committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

That makes full historical disclosure in Sakic's trial politically unacceptable even to the moderates within Tudjman's government.

"We had hoped the courts would indict [Sakic] on charges of genocide," says one Zagreb-based diplomat. "But that is a difficult charge to prove and a political can of worms nobody is willing to open."

"If you condemn Sakic for genocide, you have to speak about an organism [the NDH] whose first aim was to achieve a clean ethnic state," says Cedo Prodanovic, a former Zagreb prosecutor who was hired by the family of one of Sakic's alleged victims to represent them at the trial. "The prosecution wants to convict Sakic without vivisecting the NDH."

With that goal in mind, says Mr. Prodanovic, the prosecution may have tried to avoid bringing to the stand key foreign witnesses whose testimonies could prove politically damaging.

In preparation for the investigation, the Croatian government guaranteed travel and safety arrangements for potential witnesses in former Yugoslavia to testify in Zagreb. While many made sworn statements at courts in Serbia and Bosnia, none came to Zagreb, and the defense will move to strike the statements on the grounds that the witnesses cannot be cross-examined.

The court, however, will allow new witnesses to be introduced until the trial ends. And Zagreb prosecutor Radovan Santek says the prosecution welcomes any witness from abroad, reiterating the government's guarantee of travel and safety arrangements.

In any case, few doubt the prosecution will be able to get a conviction. With the eyes of the international community on them, Prodanovic says the prosecutors must show they are strict professionals.

"They have to do what they have to do," he says. "Nothing more."

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