Jewish World Review / May 20, 1998 / 24 Iyar, 5758

Neal M.Sher

Neal Sher The Case of Dinko Sakic: A Whitewash In The Making?

THE STARTLING NEWS made headlines the world over: the 76 year old former Commandant of the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp - where tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were tortured, brutalized and slaughtered at the hands of Croatian fascists, known as Ustashe - has been located in Argentina and placed under arrest pending deportation to Zagreb to stand trial for war crimes.

Although not as well known in the West as Auschwitz or Treblinka, Jasenovac was a place of unspeakable cruelty and mass murder. Established and run by the ultra-nationalistic and devoutly Catholic Ustashe regime to implement its Nazi inspired anti-Semitic and anti-Serb policies, the camp operated from 1941 Holocaust sceneuntil April, 1945. While there are differing estimates, no one can seriously doubt that many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Jews, Gypsies and Serbs perished there.

Published accounts place Sakic, between early 1942 and the fall of 1944, as Deputy Commandant and Commandant of Jasenovac and one of its sub-camps, Stara Gradiska.

Like many other Ustashe leaders and officers, Sakic escaped to the West after the war, parading undoubtedly as a God fearing patriotic Croatian nationalist who thoroughly despised the communists. It's quite possible that he fled with the help of Operation "Rat Line", through which Nazi criminals secured phony documents to facilitate safe passage from post-war Europe.

Conveniently, Rat Line was run by one of Sakic's Croatian Ustashe brethren, a Catholic priest by the name of Draganovic, who worked feverishly to save mass murderers, while operating from his office within the sacred walls of Pope Pious XII's Vatican.

Judging by the recent photos of Sakic, he appears to have lived well after the war. He also remained active in the Croatian nationalist movement in exile, which longed for a return to the "good old days"; it's no wonder that many of it's leaders, such as Sakic, earned their stripes in service to the fascist and violently anti-Semitic Ustashe regime.

Prior to the Croatia's independence in 1991, Ustashe supporters in exile were extremely well organized and funded. They also were relentless in their efforts to re-write history by whitewashing and minimizing the crimes committed by the Ustashe during the war at places like Jasenovac.

Since very few, if any, concentration camp commanders are still alive, Sakic's arrest was significant and, at first blush, very exciting. Not surprisingly, Jewish and survivor groups welcomed the prospect of seeing Sakic in the dock. As the former head of the Office of Special Investigations, I naturally took a keen interest the story, especially since the office had investigated Ustashe crimes and I had toured the Jasenovac site during an official visit to Yugoslavia in the 1980's.

The arrest was the result of an interview Sakic recently gave to an Argentinean TV station in which he bragged about has service as the head of Jasenovac. He insisted that during his command no one was murdered or tortured. While some may have died from natural causes such as illness and malnutrition, it was, after all, wartime and everyone suffered. To listen to him, you'd think he ran a summer camp in the Poconos for underprivileged inner-city kids.

As a result of the television coverage, protests around the world were lodged (mostly from Jewish groups, with B'nai B'rith leading the charge) and Argentina proclaimed that they wanted rid of the Ustashe thug.

There can be no doubt that Sakic deserves to be in the dock. Even if no eyewitnesses are willing to come forward to testify against him (they have good reason to fear retaliation), by virtue of his admitted positions alone he should be held accountable and deserves to be punished.

For its part, the government of Croatia promptly proclaimed that it was eager to put him on trial for war crimes. That made me a wee bit suspicious. Then, Sakic announced that he wouldn't fight extradition to Zagreb. He sounded too cocky and awfully confident. I began to smell a rat. A rat with a name: Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's President.

It is of course possible that Sakic's gamble will backfire, that he will get what he deserves, and that justice will prevail. My advice: Don't wager against him. I'm afraid he knows exactly what he's doing. I hate to say it, but if the unimaginable were to happen and I somehow found myself as Sakic's lawyer, I'd give him the same advice: go home to Tudjman's Croatia, where the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor.

Sakic knows full well that the newly independent Croatia has welcomed with open arms the returning "heroes" in the Ustashe "diaspora." Hell, some of the aging leaders from the fascist days were even installed in leadership positions in the present day regime. And Tudjman has been the head cheerleader.

Remember also that Tudjman has made an indelible mark as a Holocaust denier and revisionist. In his pseudo-historical book Wastelands-Historical Truth, Tudjman ridiculed the notion that 6 million Jews perished in Europe and that the estimates of those murdered at Jasenovac in particular were grossly exaggerated. Incredibly, he argued that the Jews not only ran and "jealously" managed the camp, they actually orchestrated the murder of the Gypsies.

For good measure, and to leave no doubt about where he stood, Tudjman criticized the efforts to expose Kurt Waldheim (as a matter of full journalistic disclosure, I must state for the record that I take that charge rather personally), while comparing Israeli policy towards the Palestinians to Nazi genocide, going so far as calling Israelis "Judeo-Nazis."

Nasty stuff, to be sure. But it was written in 1989, before he became the distinguished leader of independent Croatia. Fair enough. Let's take a look at his behavior since the book was published.

While campaigning for the Presidency, Tudjman fanned the flames of xenophobia and anti-Semitism by proclaiming on Croatian television that he thanked God that his wife was neither a Jew nor a Serb. How's that for subtlety.

And he didn't get better after taking office. In a move which was both reprehensible and revealing as to how far he would go to rehabilitate the fascists, several years ago Tudjman attempted to turn the Jasenovac site into a burial ground for all those who were, in his words, "Croatian war victims." This obscene plan would have buried Ustashe criminals side by side with the very people they killed. There was to be no distinction between murderer and true victim. All were equally deserving of remembrance.

There is yet another reason to take with a large grain of salt Croatia's proclaimed eagerness to bring the Jasenovac commander to justice. It seems that as recently as 1995 Sakic went back to Zagreb and felt comfortable enough to give an extraordinary interview to the Croatian journal "Magazin." Not only did he admit to his role at Jasenovac, he was damned proud of it.

Not surprisingly, he chanted the Ustashe mantra that there simply were no mass executions at Jasenovac. At Jasenovac, everything was done properly, according to law, and only to protect the nation from its sworn enemies.

He went much further in his blasphemous comments, and expressed sincere regret that the "exaggerated" tales of Ustashe atrocities were not really true, since that would have prevented the nasty lies now being spread against the loyal Croatian patriots.

There was not the slightest hint of regret or contrition. Quite the contrary, he would enthusiastically do it all over again.

After making such admissions, you would think that the prosecutors to have been all over him; that his days as a free man would have been numbered. Not a chance. Not in Tudjman's Croatia.

Now you know why I'm so skeptical and suspicious. Should Sakic ever stand trial, don't bet on the good guys. They'll be in for some real "home cooking."

JWR contributor, Neal M. Sher, is a partner in the Washington law firm Schmeltzer, Aptaker and Shepard and is the President of the American section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. He is the former Director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department and the former Executive Director of American Israel Public Affairs Committee.


4/5/98: Judge Gilbert Merritt's Obsession With Jews (Demjanjuk, part II)
3/22/98: The Continuing Saga of Ivan Demjanjuk
3/1/98: Shameful Scapegoating At The Holocaust Museum

©1998, Neal M. Sher