Andrija Artukovic -- for nearly 40 years Yugoslavia's most wanted war criminal -- was given the maximum, capital penalty as expected at the conclusion of a month-long trial in Zagreb yesterday. Lawyers said afterward they anticipate the sentence will be reduced on appeal to a prison term.
The trial was important, they said, because the very fact that Mr. Artukovic was indicted ``symbolized'' all the war crimes committed against the nation.
Now in his 87th year, Artukovic is almost certainly the first octogenarian and the most advanced in years of any top Nazi to be given a death sentence, either in the Soviet Union or in West Germany, where the major Nazi trials took place.
At time of writing, the Yugoslav government had made no official pronouncement on the verdict, and, before anything further is done, Artukovic must await the formal confirmation of the Zagreb court's sentence by higher authority.
Following that, he can appeal the verdict to the Croatian Supreme Court, and if unsuccessful there, to the Yugoslav Supreme Court.
Given the weight of evidence presented in the trial, neither of these courts can be expected to question the merits of the verdict or mitigate the lower court's judgment during the appeals process.
The evidence details the activities of the terrorist Ustasha movement, which headed the puppet ``Croatian state'' set up by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini after crushing Yugoslavia in 1941. Artukovic was Ustasha's minister of the interior, and was convicted on charges of being responsible for the slaughter of more than 200,000 Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies in Yugoslavia's western province of Croatia.
Artukovic's defense was that, contrary to the widely-held Yugoslavian view, he was not Ustasha's No. 2 man, just behind Ante Pavelic. But even in the lower position of minister of the interior, according to the evidence, he controlled the operations of some 22 notorious concentration camps set up in Croatia and adjacent territory.
But Artukovic asserted during the trial that his own activities were all dictated by initiatives from superiors.
The two supreme courts can be expected to uphold both the Zagreb court's judgment and its justification for imposing the death penalty provided for by Yugoslav law on war crimes. Appeals, therefore, will be directed to mitigating the sentence itself because of Artukovic's age.
It is conceivable that the federal court might add a rider to its own pronouncement pointing to the possibility of commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. But almost certainly this will be left to the Federal Constitutional Commission which is the final arbiter in matters of amnesty or clemency.
Artukovic has been Yugoslavia's most wanted man since the death of Mr. Pavelic more than 20 years ago. The Yugoslavs were finally successful in securing his extradition from the US in February.
Although it did not not figure in the indictment against Artukovic himself, the Yugoslav media has devoted much space lately to covering the continuing activities of the Ustasha organization-in-exile around the world.
Although many of the organization's original leaders have died, sons and other followers have continued the movement's campaign, directed now at the new communist state established in Yugoslavia.
In a wave of terrorist actions through the '70s, Yugoslav diplomats were killed, trains in the main railroad stations in Belgrade and Zagreb were bombed, and a bomb exploded on a Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 over Czechoslovakia, killing 27 passengers and crew.
In recent years -- with governments showing less tolerance toward emigr'e activisits -- there has been a considerable lessening in the number of such incidents. But the Yugoslavs are aware that the Artukovic judgment could trigger a new round.