Andrija Artukovic, who was extradited from Southern California after he was accused of being one of the most monstrous war criminals of the Nazi era, went on trial here Monday.
His attorneys sought to delay the trial on the grounds that the 86-year-old defendant is suffering from ill health and senility, but they were overruled.
Artukovic, the former interior minister of the Nazi puppet "independent state of Croatia," appeared to doze off as the prosecutor, Ivanka Pintar-Gajer, read a 38-page indictment that accused him of ordering some of the most brutal mass murders of World War II.
Although he is legally blind, almost deaf and had arrived in Yugoslavia on a stretcher from the United States two months ago, Artukovic walked unaided into the courtroom and answered quickly and accurately when asked routine questions legally establishing his identity.
Dressed casually in a sport jacket and tieless shirt, the former Croatian police boss, who has been dubbed "the Butcher of the Balkans" by the Yugoslav press, appeared at times to be alert and at other times to be indifferent to the proceedings. He sat in a bulletproof glass booth facing the judges under close guard by two policemen who helped him to his feet from time to time when he was asked to stand up.
When it looked as if Artukovic were asleep during the reading of the indictment, one of his defense attorneys, Srdja Popovic, shouted across the courtroom, "Let him listen to the indictment; don't let him fall asleep."
Artukovic sat stiffly with his mouth slackly open, and his hands clasped across his midriff, during much of the three-hour, 30-minute proceeding, but near the end he appeared to relax as he crossed his legs in a casual attitude.
Monday's session was adjourned before Artukovic was asked whether he understood the indictment and had any comment on it, a process required by Yugoslav law. A court official said that the questions will come today when the trial resumes. Officials said they expect the trial to last about two weeks.
The defendant, accused by Yugoslav authorities of "committing unscrupulous and monstrous offenses against mankind," faces a maximum sentence of death by firing squad and a minimum of five years' imprisonment if he is found guilty. The indictment charged him with "putting to death more than 200,000" Serbians, Jews, Gypsies, Croatians and others
Although he is on trial on only four specific charges--the same accusations that figured in his extradition hearings in U.S. District Court in California--prosecutors read an indictment that painted much broader and more horrible crimes, including genocide against Serbians, Gypsies and Jews.
The Serbians, mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the Croatians, mostly conservative Roman Catholics, have warred against one another for centuries, and one of the goals of the wartime Croatian puppet government was to "purify" Croatia by either killing the Orthodox Serbians or forcibly converting them to Roman Catholicism.
Some Catholic clergymen actively participated in the campaign, and for years after the war, Yugoslavs were infuriated by Western and Vatican efforts to protect wartime Croatian Archbishop Alois Stepinac, who backed the Nazi puppet regime during the war.
Artukovic and the wartime dictator of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, were aided in their escape from Europe after the war by a network of Croatian Catholic clergymen in Austria, Switzerland, Ireland and Italy.
Pavelic died of complications several years after being wounded by a would-be assassin in Argentina.
Artukovic lived comfortably in the United States--apparently the highest ranking accused war criminal to find sanctuary there--from 1948 until his extradition to Zagreb on Feb. 12. He had lived most recently in Seal Beach, Calif.
A previous attempt to extradite him in the early 1950s failed because of a provision of U.S. law then that protected immigrants who might face persecution on political grounds if returned to their home countries, a law designed mainly to protect anti-Communist East Europeans and Russians in the early days of the Cold War.
During the most recent extradition proceedings before U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown Jr. in Los Angeles, Artukovic's attorneys sought to portray him not only as an innocent man but as being so aged and infirm as to be too feeble to understand the charges against him.
In Monday's initial court session here, Artukovic's Yugoslav lawyers again sought to gain time for him because of his poor health, and, failing that, on the ground that they had had too little time to prepare their client's defense.
The lawyers complained that they had been allowed only one 32-minute private session with Artukovic to acquaint him with all of the details listed in the lengthy indictment. Labeling the defense claim "not true, not true," Chief Judge Milko Gajski denied the request for more time.
After hearing defense lawyers argue that Artukovic suffered from Parkinson's disease, sclerosis, partial blindness and near deafness, the judges called for pre-trial medical reports and testimony from a doctor who teaches medicine at Zagreb University.
In the face of a defense claim that Artukovic sometimes thought he was Pope Pius XVI (no such pope ever existed), and had told Yugoslav psychiatrists that he was blinded by the famous postwar Yugoslav liberal dissident Milovan Djilas, the professor of medicine said "at this moment he is capable of attending the trial."
The professor testified that she had met with Artukovic 11 times since his extradition to Zagreb and found no signs of dementia or any more serious disability than he had shown in the United States during his court hearings there.
Citing her testimony, the judges denied a defense motion for a postponement to allow for fresh psychiatric examinations.
A spokesman said the prosecution will call about 40 witnesses and submit about the same number of depositions from former victims and associates of Artukovic during the next two weeks.
Among the witnesses, according to the indictment, are some who will testify that the concentration camps organized and run by Artukovic's Interior Ministry killed people by methods that were more brutal even than those employed by the Nazis.
"The detainees' and prisoners' ears and noses were cut off, their skin was cut into strips, they were bound and placed on the sharp points of nails, women's genitals were used as ashtrays, their breasts were cut off, people were burnt in furnaces, killed with poisoned injections, with mallets and hammers, slaughtered, executed and hanged," the indictment charged.