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Sakic Sentence Opens Israeli Doors For Tudjman

The trial and 20-year sentence of 78-year-old death camp commander Dinko Sakic have opened up new possibilities for Croatia and its president Franjo Tudjman, including a state visit to Israel.
By Drago Hedl

When a Zagreb court sentenced Dinko Sakic, former commander of the Jasenovac death camp, to 20 years in prison earlier this week, it brought to an end one of the last war crimes trials of World War II and opened up new international possibilities for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.


Although the 78-year-old Ustashe refused to repent for atrocities committed under his authority against Jews, Serbs, Roma and fellow Croats during the Second World War, his sentence has deep implications for Croatia. Many analysts hope it will enable the country to put a line under its past and evolve into a western European democracy.


In the wake of the sentence - which, in the absence of the death penalty, which has been abolished in Croatia, was the longest-possible custodial term - it means that Tudjman will probably be able finally to travel to Israel.


Tudjman has wished to visit Israel for many years. Indeed, so eager was Tudjman to travel there he was even willing to change passages of a controversial book Horrors of War: Historical Reality and Philosophy, parts of which the Jewish NGO B'nai B'rith found objectionable on grounds of anti-Semitism. However, planned trips have had to be cancelled repeatedly.


In 1997, Tudjman's former chef de cabinet Hrvoje Sarinic announced formally to the press that a state visit would go ahead for December of that year before having to cancel. It seems that the Israeli authorities were rather less enthusiastic about the visit than the Croatian president.


Croatia's foreign minister Mate Granic did, nevertheless, visit Israel and used the opportunity to apologise to the Israeli people for crimes committed by Croatia's Nazi puppet regime against Jews during the Second World War. Tudjman, it seems, is eager to do the same.


In May Croatia and Israel initialled agreements on trade and investment that will be signed when Tudjman finally visits Israel. Three months before Israel had signed an agreement to modernise Croatia's aging MiG-21 warplanes, in a deal reportedly worth between 80 and 120 million dollars.


"Israel accepted Tudjman's apology (for his past comments) and sees no difference between Croatia's relations with Israel and its relations with the rest of the world," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Effie Ben-Matityahu told foreign media at the time.


But the rise of several Ustashe apologists in Croatia after the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) came to power in 1990, and several idiotic remarks by the Croatian president - including his stated happiness "that his wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew," led Israel to remain sceptical about Tudjman's sincerity.


It therefore cautiously awaited Sakic's sentencing, in order to make sure that Zagreb's current authorities are committed to distancing themselves from the Ustashe movement.


In many respects, Sakic's sentence has been a painful experience for the Tudjman regime. The evidence presented at the trial appeared to clash with the official reinterpretation of the Ustashe period and attempts to portray the Nazi puppet Independent State of Croatia (NDH) as, in Tudjman's words, "the historical aspiration of the Croatian people for their own state".


In court, the NDH was portrayed as a criminal state, governed by racist laws and filled with Nazi-style death camps, of which Jasenovac was but the most notorious. However, most analysts doubt whether such a trial would have taken place or so long a sentence have been imposed in the absence of intense international interest and pressure.


In explaining Sakic's sentence, Drazen Tripalo, the president of the trial chamber, linked both Croatia's and the former Yugoslavia's past and present with a promise that there would be no impunity for war crimes.


"This proceeding is clear proof that those who committed such crimes cannot have a peaceful conscious, and that they will have to know, that, as long as they live, they can be brought to justice," he said. "This sentence, therefore, is a warning that all those who have committed crimes in either the recent or the distant past, will not escape justice."


Tripalo's assessment is very different from earlier pronouncements by Croatian judges. Former supreme court president Milan Vukovic, for example, ruled that Croats could not have committed war crimes, since they had waged a defensive war from 1991 to 1995.


Indeed, Vukovic's argument, that Croats could not have committed crimes since they were the victims of aggression, remains prevalent in Croatia today and is the main cause of conflict between Zagreb and the International Tribunal for War Crimes in The Hague.


The extent to which the Sakic sentence really does mark a sea-change in Croatian attitudes to war crimes will likely become apparent in the coming weeks. If Croatia fails to extradite Mladen 'Tuta' Naletilic, who is currently in custody in a Zagreb prison, to The Hague for crimes committed against Bosnia's Muslims during the Croat-Muslim war, it may yet face some form of international sanctions.


Drago Hedl is home affairs editor of Rijeka daily Novi List and a regular IWPR contributor.