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Monday, October 4, 1999 Published at 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK


Analysis: Verdict good for Croatia's image

Sakic's trial made Croatia face up to wartime past

By BBC South-East Europe analyst Gabriel Partos.

Dinko Sakic is believed to be the last surviving concentration camp commander from the World War II period.

Now 78-years old, he was in his mid-20s when he was promoted to take charge of the Jasenovac camp, 60km south-east of Zagreb, in 1944.

Jasenovac was the biggest of the 20-odd camps in Croatia and Bosnia that were set up by the Ustasha regime.

According to independent estimates, at least 80,000 people - Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats - died there during the war.

Much of the killing had already taken place before Mr Sakic took over at Jasenovac for a period of six months, but the charges against him still included responsibility - directly or indirectly - for the deaths of 2,000 inmates.

A panel of judges has now found Mr Sakic guilty of shooting some of the victims himself, ordering others to be hanged and, in general, of condoning the reign of terror at Jasenovac.

He was given the maximum term - 20 years - allowed under the law.

International relations at stake

The trial and the verdict will no doubt improve Croatia's image around the world, which has been damaged in the 1990s by the attempts of President Franjo Tudjman's nationalist administration to revise the official interpretation of the Ustasha past in a more positive light.

In his writings, President Tudjman himself has sought to reduce the scale of the atrocities attributed to the Ustasha regime at Jasenovac and elsewhere - admittedly from statistics greatly exaggerated by postwar Yugoslav communist historiography.

When Mr Sakic, who had lived in Argentina since 1947, made the mistake of appearing on local television last year to talk about his wartime experiences, Zagreb appeared for a while to be reluctant to pursue his extradition.

There was further controversy at the beginning of this year when the case against Mr Sakic's wife, Nada - a wartime camp guard herself - was dropped by Croatian prosecutors for lack of evidence.

Given Mr Sakic's notoriety, such a course was not really open to the Croatian authorities.

In any case, in recent years Zagreb has been trying to repair its image around the world in a bid to improve relations with the United States and west European countries.

Conflicting political pressures

It has already shelved plans announced by Mr Tudjman some years ago to rebury some of the victims and their tormentors at Jasenovac in common graves as an act of national reconciliation.

Whether pressure from the US or international Jewish organisations had any impact on this trial - as Mr Sakic claimed - is another matter. If so, it was part of a broader range of conflicting pressures, in which Croatian nationalists were trying to ensure that the charges would be dismissed.

Meanwhile, Croatia is continuing to face problems on its international relations front.

The Hague Tribunal, dealing with the war crimes of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, has repeatedly complained to the United Nations about Zagreb's less than wholehearted co-operation.

Another legacy of the wars of the early 1990s is the continued barrage of obstacles Serb refugees face when they wish to return to Croatia.

However, Mr Sakic's trial has proved that Croatia can, in judicial terms, come to terms with its wartime past.

The extensive reporting of the trial has also triggered a willingness among some Croat nationalists to face up to their country's history without instinctively condemning any criticism as being a product of communist or Serbian nationalist propaganda.

However, the case is not entirely over. Mr Sakic who protested his innocence throughout the trial, is expected to appeal to Croatia's Supreme Court.

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