In Zagreb, in an antiquated courtroom of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Yugoslavs' trial of the last known surviving major Nazi identified with wartime mass murders is nearing its end. A verdict in the case of octogenarian Andrija Artukovic is expected next week. The defendant was minister of the interior and a leading member of the terrorist Ustasha movement heading the puppet ``Croatian state'' set up by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini after the crushing of Yugoslavia in 1941.
He has been Yugoslavia's most-wanted man since the death in Spanish exile of his former chief, Ante Pavelic, some 20 years ago.
During that time, Mr. Artukovic himself had lived in the United States. He successfully eluded repeated efforts by the Yugoslav government to secure his extradition until mid-February, when the US returned him to Yugoslavia to face an indictment on war crimes. The charges range from direct responsibility in the slaughter of some 231,000 Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, Croatian anti-Nazis, and communists to the promotion of ``Aryan purity'' race laws for Croatia that were more drastic than Hitler's own.
The reign of terror during the war involved large-scale massacres on purported racial and political lines, and religious persecution designed to eliminate the Orthodox Church and Jewry. In terms of sheer human savagery, it seemed -- to Westerners who saw the German concentration camps in 1945 -- to outweigh the ``industrially'' planned methods of the Nazis themselves.
The defense has generally disavowed the charges with the same kind of pleas of ``superior orders'' or ``unawareness'' that became familiar in a host of war-crimes trials in Germany after the war. Whatever he did, Artukovic has said, was done on initiatives ``from above.''
But the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The only realm for speculation is how, in expected appeal procedures, the capital penalty mandatory in such cases should be handled.
Artukovic is in his 87th year. His lawyers opened with a plea that he was unfit to face trial. That was overruled, after the court considered medical reports. Western journalists watching the opening days reported that, although he looked frail and his memory was at times uncertain, he was alert enough to what was going on and from time to time offered vigorous rebuttal of witnesses' testimony.
The Yugoslavs have bent over backward to ensure the image of a fair trial. The court has sat only in mornings, with half-hour breaks between each hour, and no afternoon sessions. Artukovic has sat, spruce in a dark suit and always with a clean, open-collared white shirt.
Sometimes his head has nodded, as if in sleep, but then his eyes have opened to tell the court testily, for example, that a witness who said he saw him in the ``death camps'' is lying.
Four physicians have been in court throughout the trial and a nurse has been constantly close to the defendant's side. Daily, before adjourning, the court hears a report from the doctors on his condition.
His lawyers have done all they can with a case that is so heavily documented with wartime records and evidence.
The later stages of the trial have been attended by Artukovic's son, Radoslav, a real estate lawyer from Los Angeles. Radoslav is fluent in the Croatian language. Although he has declined to comment on the content of the case itself, he has told Western reporters he views the manner of its conduct as ``fair.''
In his closing speech May 7, the prosecutor called on the court to pronounce the maximum (capital) penalty. ``Justice in this case was slow. But mankind has to believe in justice and to know that it will be done,'' he said.
It seems clear enough, however, that, because of his age, there will be no wish to carry through a death penalty and court international criticism.
There is, in fact, a lengthy appeal process ahead. If the defense fails with the Croatian Supreme Court, it can appeal to the Yugoslav Supreme Court. These procedures alone would be stretched over several months.
After them, the defense still has the option of recourse to the Federal Constitutional Commission, which rules on questions of amnesty and clemency, including commuting of a death penalty.
The last seems most likely, with Andrija Artukovic destined to be a prisoner for the rest of his days, like the only other surviving top Nazi, Rudolf Hess -- five years his senior -- who sits out his years in a West Berlin jail.