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‘He Was a Good Man in a Terrible Time’ : Son of Artukovic Maintains Father Is Innocent of Crimes

Times Staff Writer

Andrija Artukovic was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. Part I, Page 1.

The telephone rang at 2:30 Wednesday morning in Radoslav Artukovic’s home near Seal Beach. It was the news that he had been expecting for a long time: His father, Andrija Artukovic, 86, had just been sentenced to death by firing squad in Yugoslavia.

Within hours of hearing the news, the younger Artukovic had called a press conference. Before a score of reporters and a dozen cameras, he said the guilty verdict “stinks,” and he promised to fight the death sentence.

The news itself “was kind of an anticlimax for me,” said Artukovic, 37, a stockbroker who attended part of the monthlong war-crimes trial. “What happened there is not a criminal trial as you and I know it ... but a political show trial.” The result, he said, is “a hollow conviction, a Communist sham trial.”

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Artukovic said that Yugoslavian defense attorneys will appeal the death sentence through two Yugoslav courts.

The elder Artukovic, a resident of Surfside Colony in Seal Beach, had served as minister of the interior, justice and religion in the Croatian government established by Nazi Germany. In concentration camps allegedly under his supervision, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and partisans were killed, Yugoslavian prosecutors declared.

Artukovic was convicted on the four charges for which he was tried in Yugoslavia. They are ordering the massacre of several hundred villagers in 1942, the slaying of about 450 people at a camp, the executions of captured Yugoslav partisans in 1943, and the unjust deportation of a lawyer in 1941.

“The Yugoslav government did not allow us to put on a defense,” charged the younger Artukovic, who said he has scores of documents that his father’s attorneys were not allowed to present. News reports said that the prosecution was allowed to present 19 affidavits and 26 witnesses and that the defense was allowed one affidavit and no witnesses.

“If he committed war crimes,” Artukovic said, “I’ve got no problems” with the verdict. “But how can you prove anything when you don’t give me the right to defend my dad?”

He said the chief witness against his father “simply told a series of lies” and was “a typical coached Communist witness” against whom Artukovic’s attorneys had evidence they were not allowed to present. “Had this piece of paper (their evidence) not been suppressed, my father would be sitting home right now instead of awaiting death at the age of 86 in Yugoslavia.”

“I think it stinks,” he said. “It’s what you would expect of a Communist society.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, which had long urged Artukovic’s extradition, said in a prepared statement Wednesday that “justice was done and that it is preposterous to claim, as the defense claims, that they haven’t proven any personal crimes against Artukovic.

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“Hitler and Himmler didn’t commit any personal crimes, and they are regarded as the world’s most vicious killers. The question is, who was responsible for the government policies, and Artukovic as minister of the interior was directly responsible for those crimes.”

In Washington, Neal Sher, head of the Justice Department Office of Special Investigations, which is assigned to bring suspected Nazi war criminals in the United States to justice, said: “The findings there as to his guilt really confirm the findings that have been made in our courts--that is to say, he was engaged in terrible atrocities. Justice is served by his having been convicted.”

Radoslav Artukovic said Wednesday that he is calling for a congressional investigation of what he charges was the “collaboration” of U.S. Justice Department attorneys and Yugoslavian officials to achieve his father’s arrest and his extradition to Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Andrija Artukovic was arrested at his home in November and extradited in February. U.S. officials had sought to extradite him for three decades.

The Office of Special Investigations, Radoslav Artukovic said, has “permission to go after Nazi war criminals . . . that’s a laudable goal. The problem I have is they’re tossing a lot of judicial concepts out of the window.” Due process, he said, was “denied . . . last year” in the United States and “denied . . . in Yugoslavia.”

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So far, though, he said, his contact with congressional offices has gotten the response, “Why get worked up about an accused Nazi?” On Wednesday, Artukovic compared his father’s case to the “put-up” political charges against freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharanksy, who visited the White House on Tuesday.

He said that to Croatian nationalists, his father’s sentence is “a badge of honor. It makes my dad a greater political martyr than he would be otherwise.”

Many Croatian supporters, he said, “held out the illusion that Ronald Reagan’s stance against communism also extended to . . . the Eastern Bloc. They were shattered at what happened.”

“He was a good man in a terrible time,” Artukovic said of his father.

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