The extradition of Andrija Artukovic from the United States to face war-crime charges in Yugoslavia has left in its wake a string of unanswered questions. Among them: Is Andrija Artukovic a war criminal? The elderly and ailing former Interior and Justice minister for the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, was quietly turned over to the Yugoslav government to stand trial on charges that he ordered the murders of thousands of civilian Jews, Serbs, gypsies, and others in Croatia during World War II. Federal prosecutors proclaimed in headlines nationwide that Artukovic was the highest-ranking Nazi war criminal living in the US.
According to the Yugoslav extradition request, Artukovic was ordered to stand trial specifically on charges related to some 5,000 killings and atrocities committed in Croatia between 1941 and 1942. The evidence submitted to the US against Artukovic by Yugoslavia comprises an affidavit by Avdic Vajro, a Yugoslav citizen, who claims to have been a chauffeur for high-ranking members of the Croatian puppet government under the Nazis. Mr. Vajro asserts that, in this capacity, he witnessed Artukovic's involvement in the killing of numerous civilians.
According to Artukovic's lawyers, who were not present when the affidavit was taken, those allegations have never been proved in court. Gary Fleischman and Ronald Bonaparte argue that their client was the target of a eight-year US Justice Department campaign to kick him out of the country.
Artukovic's Feb. 12 extradition -- carried out swiftly and in secrecy without the knowledge of his attorneys or family -- was greeted with celebration at the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and with disbelief within the exiled Croatian community.
``We believe he is innocent and that this is strictly a political plot,'' says Petar Kadielovic, director of the Croatian Information Service in Los Angeles.
Neal Sher, who heads the OSI, said the case was handled in a standard manner. ``This man had so many bites at the apple and he just came to the end of the trail.''
Former US Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, now district attorney of Brooklyn, issued a press release following the Artukovic extradition. ``This is really good news. I have worked for his expulsion from the United States since 1974.''
Nazi war-crimes allegations were not new to Artukovic. For more than 10 years in the 1940s and '50s, the former Croatian cabinet minister and lawyer had fought repeated attempts to have him extradicted to Yugoslavia or deported from the US. He denied involvement in the killings, arguing that the charges were trumped up by the newly established communist government in Yugoslavia in an effort to discredit the anticommunist Artukovic in his homeland. In 1959, he received a favorable ruling in the US: There was not enough evidence to tie Artukovic to atrocities carried out in Croatia in the early 1940s. He stayed in the US.
The matter might have faded from public view in 1959 were it not for the efforts of a dedicated cadre of American Nazi-hunters who were convinced of Artukovic's guilt. The case was reopened in 1977.
Artukovic's attorneys argue that federal prosecutors seemed more interested in expelling Artukovic from the US than in searching for and establishing the truth of his involvement or noninvolvement in atrocities.
Mr. Bonaparte says that when the OSI was confronted with having to prove Artukovic's complicity in war crimes, federal prosecutors shifted their strategy. The effort to deport Artukovic was placed on hold, Bonaparte charges, while OSI attorneys took the unprecedented step of asking the Yugoslav government to file an extradition request.
The significance of this, according to Bonaparte and Mr. Fleischman, is that the burden of proof in foreign extradition requests is much lower than that required in US deportation hearings. Fleischman notes that deportation cases require the government present ``a preponderance of evidence,'' while extradition cases require only ``a strong suspicion'' of guilt.
``This was deportation by other means,'' Fleischman charges.
OSI director Sher has repeatedly denied that US officials asked the Yugoslav government to enter the Artukovic case. While acknowledging that there were contacts between the OSI and Yugoslavia on the extradition matter, he has stressed that the contacts were all proper.
According to a book published last year in Belgrade by a Yugoslav author, a US Justice Department official traveled to Belgrade in July 1983, and ``it was emphasized that the Justice Department wishes to actualize anew the extradition proceeding of Andrija Artukovic.''
The statement, attributed to Dr. Gojko Prodanic of the Yugoslav Republic Secretary for Justice and General Administration, adds, ``Representatives of that American ministry proposed that the Yugoslav side submit a new request for the extradition of Artukovic. . . . They offered specialists from that ministry to help draw up a new request for extradition, also to help with the selection of evidentiary materials which would conform to the criteria and practice of their court organs.''
Fleischman says his plans for further appeals in both the Ninth Circuit and at the Supreme Court were rendered moot when he received a telephone call from an Associated Press reporter Feb. 12 and learned for the first time that his client was already in Yugoslavia. ``I have never seen anything like this in 26 years of civil rights practice,'' says Fleischman.
A former federal prosecutor, Fleischman charges that the evidence against Artukovic subsequently submitted by the Yugoslav government in the extradition case is inaccurate and distorted. But he says he has never been given an opportunity to challenge the veracity of Yugoslavia's evidence in US court.
``We don't challenge their papers, and they don't challenge ours,'' says Murray Stein, the associate director of the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs. ``We are required by treaty to accept their papers.'' Stein adds, ``You can't have relations with other governments if you don't trust them.''
US officials say they are confident that Artukovic will receive a fair trial.
``It is going to be a pathetic charade of a show trial,'' says Radoslav Artukovic. ``There is no doubt in my mind that they are going to find my dad guilty.''