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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK

Trial and retribution

Dinko Sakic's domain was a place called Jasenovac, dubbed the "Auschwitz of the Balkans."

By BBC Correspondent Jon Silverman in Zagreb

A photograph taken in 1945 goes some way to explaining why Dinko Sakic - like so many Nazi henchmen - was a willing participant in mass murder. There he stands in his shiny black boots, a thin riding crop held in one gloved hand, an officer's cap sitting jauntily on his head.

This is the man described by the camp inmates he tormented as a "dandy". And he's clearly relishing the attention of the camera lens.

When you consider that Sakic was only 24 when this picture was taken and already a camp commandant with the power of life and death over thousands of his fellow countrymen, you begin to understand the motivation of men like him.

Sakic's domain was a place called Jasenovac, dubbed the "Auschwitz of the Balkans." But in truth, the comparison is misleading.


Where the Nazis practised extermination with assembly line efficiency, their Croatian partners, the ustasha, were primitives - clubs and hammers were their weapons of choice. And when you visit Jasenovac, there's something else which makes you only too aware of the connection between the war crimes of the past and the present.

[ image: The River Sava: the camp's boundary]
The River Sava: the camp's boundary
On one side, the camp boundary is marked by the River Sava. Beyond it lies Bosnia, that graveyard of the 90s. And indeed, much of the area covered by Jasenovac was mined by the Bosnian Serbs during the civil war spawned by the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Talk to any Serb and you're swiftly reminded of the atrocities inflicted by the ustasha.

And, of course, it was the fratricidal horror of Yugoslavia which persuaded the UN, in 1993, to set up the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg and Tokyo.

But it's hardly been an unqualified triumph for justice.

No big fishes

True, 89 indictments have been handed down. But only 27 arrests made. Only one man, a Serb, has gone through the entire criminal process and is in jail. Another six have been found guilty and are being detained awaiting appeal.

[ image: Radovan Karadzic: remains at large]
Radovan Karadzic: remains at large
But there are no big fishes - none even has the status of a Dinko Sakic. While the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, remain at large, few will be convinced that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has achieved anything more than express the civilised world's good intentions.

Nor do you have to be over-cynical to suspect that if the atrocities had taken place outside Europe, the war crimes process would not have been kick-started into life at all.

East Timor, Biafra, Cambodia - the blood-letting and ethnic cleansing of 30 years may have carried shock value but bringing the guilty to justice was never a clear international priority.

Mind you, there's a powerful case for saying that an international prosecution is a very poor substitute for trial by a national jurisdiction.


Even after a gap of some 12 years, I can still recapture the electric charge of anticipation which ran through a courtroom in the French city of Lyons on the opening day of the trial of Klaus Barbie.

[ image: Klaus Barbie trial: electric charge of anticipation]
Klaus Barbie trial: electric charge of anticipation
This, after all, was the very place where Barbie had committed his crimes as Gestapo chief. There was also a national recognition in France that the veil was about to be lifted on Vichy and some of the long-cherished myths of collaboration.

And though the trial of Dinko Sakic - the last surviving concentration camp commander - would still have been enlightening had it been held, say, in the Hague, its forensic re-examination of the ustasha regime would not have had the same impact inside Croatia as it undoubtedly had for the past year or more.

As Sakic was led from the court - still looking remarkably unperturbed for a 77-year-old facing 20 years in jail - the leader of an American Jewish organisation which had helped trace him, turned to me and said excitedly - "Do you realise this is the first time a former Communist state has convicted a Nazi war criminal? It sure is an historic day."

Indeed, it was. And if Croatia can confront its fascist past, then perhaps Lithuania and Latvia - not known for their sympathy towards war crimes trials - might also be pushed into a change of heart.

In the words of the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel - "Whoever forgets becomes the executioner's accomplice."

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