In the second of a two-part series, BIRN tells the story of how Croatia convicted the last surviving WWII concentration camp commander, Dinko Sakic - who was unrepentant about the victims of the Jasenovac camp.
Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Nazi-hunting Wiesenthal Centre, arrived in Zagreb in July 1998 to find the city gripped by a celebratory frenzy as Croatia beat Germany in the quarter-finals of the football World Cup in France and fans took to the streets to party into the night.
“After the match, we went out on the street. I see a group of seven young men. I have a yarmulke on my head,” recalled Zuroff, who was visiting Zagreb to meet state officials about the case against a man called Dinko Sakic.
“They’re weaving some sort of a flag… and they were yelling: ‘Dinko, Sakic, Dinko, Sakic.’ I was in shock,” he said.
Sakic, the last surviving World War II concentration camp commander, had landed in Zagreb just a couple of weeks earlier, on June 18, 1998, after being extradited from Argentina, where he had lived in freedom since the 1940s.
On June 19, Sakic appeared before an investigative judge at Zagreb county court. The questioning finished quickly because Sakic, the former commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was run by the fascist Ustasa movement, was defending himself by remaining silent.
In December 1998, the state attorney’s office indicted Sakic for crimes against civilians committed during the time he was camp commander at Jasenovac between April and November 1944. He was accused of personally carrying out executions during the same period.
The opening of the trial on March 15, 1999 was attended by around 70 reporters and representatives of some foreign embassies in Zagreb.
After state attorneys read out the indictment, presiding judge Drazen Tripalo asked Sakic how he pleaded.
“I absolutely don’t feel guilty of any of incriminating deeds, and my conscience is peaceful,” he responded.
Sakic’s supporters were often present at hearings.
At one point, while judge Tripalo was not looking, they gave the Nazi salute to Sakic. In another incident, one Sakic supporter had to be taken out of the courtroom for accusing a witness of lying.
Branko Seric was one of Sakic’s two lawyers. Twenty years later, he said he thought that the case was “really delicate”.
“It was delicate because establishing facts was hard… Living participants in these events were scarce, while there were indirect witnesses, as well as victims’ families. Also there were his memoirs,” Seric told BIRN.
‘In Jasenovac, everything was possible’
Many witnesses, most of them former camp inmates, testified about the horrors of Jasenovac, while Sakic was mostly quiet, making notes and smiling. Some remembered Sakic and his place within the camp system, some did not.
One former inmate, Vjekoslav Bednjanec, recalled how Sakic ordered the hanging of a prisoner for making an Ustasa cap for a camp guard. The man’s body was left hanging there for three days as a message to others
Jakov Finci, a Jewish former inmate, recalled autumn 1944, when Sakic was the deputy of the camp, and the Ustasa executed 3,000 people in just ten days, while other inmates had to bury them.
When asked by Sakic’s lawyer Ivan Kern if such a thing was even possible, Finci responded that “in Jasenovac, everything was possible”.
Finci also testified how Sakic personally shot Mile Boskovic, a Montenegrin Communist, in September 1944, after he asked not to be hanged alongside other prisoners for an attempted escape from the camp.
“Boskovic said: ‘I am Montenegrin. For me, hanging is dishonourable. Shoot me.’ Sakic replied with irony: ‘You’ve held yourself well during the investigation [for the attempted escape]. You’ve earned a shooting. Turn around,’” Finci recalled as he described the moments before Sakic shot Boskovic.
During Finci’s testimony, Sakic was smiling, causing judge Tripalo to give him a warning.
Cedo Prodanovic, an experienced lawyer from Zagreb, was the legal representative for Petar Boskovic, brother of the murdered Mile Boskovic.
“I tried to compensate for the prosecutor’s lack of enthusiasm with my personal engagement,” Prodanovic told BIRN, adding that the trial and judge were fair in general.
At one hearing, Prodanovic wanted to ask another a former inmate, Dragan Roller, which criteria were used when people were sent to Jasenovac.
“Jews were coming because they were Jews, Serb because they were Serbs, and Croats, mostly because they were enemies of the Ustasa,” Roller responded.
However, judge Tripalo warned that Prodanovic was not allowed to ask questions that “don’t directly consider the case of his client”.
Later Prodanovic told media that it was “sad” that no one had asked about conditions at Jasenovac.
Historical revisionism in court
In his book ‘Tocka na u’ (‘Dot on the U’), Viktor Ivancic, one of the founders of anti-establishment satirical weekly Feral Tribune, claimed that the court was careful not to go too much into depth about the Ustasa-led Independent State of Croatia, the NDH, a Nazi puppet state which existed from 1941 to 1945.
Prodanovic said that the court did not limit itself completely to the task of establishing Sakic’s guilt, but that it also did not “examine all that the NDH represented”.
However, a bigger problem for Prodanovic was historian Josip Jurcevic, who as an expert witness claimed that Jasenovac was a labour camp rather than a concentration camp.
These days, Jurcevic often presents his findings along with a Zagreb-based organisation called the Society for Research of the Threefold Jasenovac Camp. Many historians see some members of the organisation as historical revisionists who do not base their work on academic research.
Although Jurcevic, the author of ‘The Emergence of the Jasenovac Myth’, testified as an expert witness, at that point he did not have a doctorate in history.
At the trial, Jurcevic claimed that all existing research on Jasenovac’s death toll was not scientifically-based and was incorrect.
When Prodanovic asked Jurcevic if any crime was committed at Jasenovac at all, judge Tripalo dismissed the question.
Croatian demographer Vladimir Zerjavic also testified before the court, claiming that 85,000 people were killed in Jasenovac at most. His research suggests that 4,035 people died in the camp in 1944, while the state attorney’s office claimed that around 2,000 died there during the time that Sakic was the commander.
According to the Jasenovac Memorial Site’s name-by-name list, 7,510 died in 1944.
Seric said the deaths were a tragedy, but added that “we as the defence claimed that no one could be tried according to statistics”.
“But, again, on the other hand, there was enough guilt to try him, simply for the fact that he was the commander of a camp that was a factory of crime,” he said.
Sakic rejects racism allegations
Presenting his defence, Sakic continued to insist that no one was sent to Jasenovac on the basis of their “religion, race or political beliefs”, but because they “actively worked against the interests of the Croatian state”.
He also refuted the claims that he killed Boskovic, and said he was the victim of a politically-manipulated process.
“As a soldier, I did not make decisions, but I executed them consciously because they were in accordance with my understanding of national interests and the preservation of the biological survival of the Croatian people,” Sakic said in his closing statement.
In the closing statement, Seric once again tried to distance himself from the Ustasa-led NDH and its ideology.
“Don’t play God. Pass a verdict in the case of Dinko Sakic, not in [the case of] the Jasenovac labour and collection camp. What was Jasenovac - a collection and labour camp or a death camp? - you shouldn’t answer that question either,” he told the judges.
Defence lawyer Seric also insisted that Sakic was obliged to show loyalty to the Ustasa movement, as he gave an oath to its leader Ante Pavelic, who strictly punished disobedience.
On October 4, 1999, judge Tripalo read out a statement according to which Sakic – between May and late October 1944, when he was the camp commander – was found guilty of most of the counts of the indictment, as well as personal executions of Boskovic and three other inmates – Avram Montiljo, Leon Perer and one unidentified male.
He was also found guilty of ordering executions of inmates.
Tripalo rejected Sakic’s claims that people were sent to the camp because they defied the Ustasa state; the judge said that they were imprisoned because the NDH passed and implemented racist laws.
Taking into account that Sakic never admitted any of the crimes, or showed any remorse, the court sentenced him to the maximum of 20 years in prison.
After the verdict was passed, a few people loudly voiced their disagreement with the verdict, while one of Sakic’s supporters assaulted anti-fascist activist Zoran Pusic.
However, even those who were initially sceptical about Sakic’s trial in Zagreb were relieved with the outcome.
“It was an enormous gamble from our side… But I have to say that Drazen Tripalo, who was the judge, did actually a great job, efficiently and respectably. Tripalo was the real hero of the trial, and I don’t know if ever got any credit for it,” Zuroff said.
He emphasised that it was “the only successful trial in post-communist Eastern Europe, as he was the only Nazi collaborator in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism that was not only convicted but punished”.
‘Young, well-educated, radical and ideologised’
n his book, Ivancic wrote that all the evidence showed that fewer people were executed at Jasenovac when it was under Sakic’s command, and that he showed more interest in his own appearance in his black Ustasa uniform.
“But that doesn’t mean that Sakic was a criminal to a lesser extent. He was as much a criminal as was needed from him,” Ivancic wrote.
Alexander Korb, a German historian at the University of Leicester and the author of the book ‘Intertwined Genocides: Mass Violence in Croatia during the Second World War’, said that Sakic was important for reshaping the superficial picture of Ustasa as “mad psychopaths”, which in a way removes their responsibility for what they did.
“Of course, there were some of these crazy psychopaths, but the majority of Ustasa were actually normal people. They were radical nationalists in the context in which they used and justified violence, but they weren’t crazy in a pathological sense,” he told BIRN.
According to Korb, Sakic - an “extremely young, well-educated, radical and ideologised nationalist” - was “typical for the Ustasa movement”.
Many have criticised the state attorney’s office for not indicting Sakic for genocide as well as war crimes.
The prosecution claimed that there were no grounds for trying Sakic for acts of genocide, claiming that Sakic did not decide who would be sent to the camp. It also claimed that “inmates were executed without [any] criteria” at Jasenovac.
Prodanovic was one of those who were dissatisfied that Sakic was not tried for genocide.
“Some probably thought if he were to be tried for the genocide that it would have repercussions for the whole Croatian nation, which is nonsense,” he said.
“But if you look at the situation today, he would probably be tried for destruction of the environment,” he said ironically, referring to the growing trend towards historical revisionism in contemporary Croatia.
Zuroff suggested however that Sakic’s trial for war crimes was all that could be achieved at that time in Croatia.
“Don’t forget it was during the time of Tudjman, the only Western head of state who ever denied the Holocaust,” he explained.
Korb also suggested that it doesn’t matter that Sakic was not charged with genocide, because “he was tried for the crimes he did in the name of the genocidal regime”.
Nevertheless, the proceedings had “a really great impact” at the time, Zuroff said.
However, he added, that effect has not been exploited properly by the Jasenovac Memorial Site, as the trial is not mentioned at all in its current permanent exhibition.
In September 2000, the Croatian Supreme Court rejected all the pleas of Sakic’s defence and upheld the verdict. Sakic was put in Lepoglava prison, north of Zagreb, although he was allowed to visit his wife Nada in a retirement home near the capital.
In his interviews from prison in 2001 and 2002, Sakic rejected any responsibility for crimes at Jasenovac.
He died in the prison hospital in July 2008 and was buried in Zagreb cemetery in his Ustasa uniform in front of some 300 people.
Catholic priest Vjekoslav Lasic, who had a close personal relationship with Sakic, gave a sermon at his funeral. Lasic said that Sakic was a member of the Ustasa who “re-established the Croatian state” in 1941, a reason why “every decent Croat should be proud of Sakic’s name”.