Croatia facing its fascist past with camp chiefs conviction

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He also said Sakic personally killed four prisoners and that "the obvious mass suffering of inmates" and Sakic's "lack of remorse" were aggravating circumstances.

"We hope that the sentence — made 55 years after the events — will be a warning that all those who committed crimes in the near or distant past will not escape justice," Tripalo said. "We also hope that the verdict will be a warning for the future."

During World War II, tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed at Jasenovac, known as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans."

The great majority killed at the camp, which unlike most camps was not run by Germans but by Croatian fascists, were Serbs. But victims also included Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats.

The Sakic case opened the door to a painful re-examination of Croatia's past, both in light of its World War II history, when Croatia was a Nazi puppet state ruled by homegrown fascists known as the Ustashe — and in light of the nationalist passions fanned over the past decade with the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

B'nai B'rith International played a key role in finding Sakic, pressing for his arrest, extradition and trial, and finding witnesses. At the request of the Croatian government, representatives of the group attended the trial as official international observers.

Sakic was arrested in early 1998 in Argentina — where he had lived for half a century — after he reminisced on Argentine television about his time as commander of Jasenovac. Charges against his wife, who was also extradited from Argentina to face trial for war crimes, were dropped earlier this year.

Throughout the trial, Sakic expressed no remorse and belittled or even mocked the testimony of more than 30 camp survivors who graphically recounted killings, starvation and untreated diseases.

He claimed instead that "no harm was done" to inmates and that some of the testimonies were "fantasies" or anti-Croat propaganda.

"I have no guilty conscience whatsoever," he said last week in his final remarks to the court.