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WWII Croat Commander’s Case Delayed

March 4, 1999

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ A judge today postponed one of the century’s last major trials into Nazi-era war crimes because of fears the defendant’s life could be at risk due to his poor health.

Chief judge Drazen Tripalo put off proceedings against Dinko Sakic until March 15 after a physician told the court Sakic might not survive if he were required to sit through the trial.

Sakic, 77, a former commandant of the Jasenovac concentration camp that had been known as the ``Auschwitz of the Balkans,″ was hospitalized Wednesday after fainting in jail. He displayed quivering hands and told the court he felt too weak to follow the trial, which was to have begun today.

International Jewish groups said they hoped the delay did not indicate a weakening of Croatia’s resolve to press ahead with the trial.

``Sakic is the only known commandant of a concentration camp still living and he is likely the most important war criminal to be tried for crimes against humanity in former eastern and central Europe,″ said Tommy Baer of Richmond, Va., a former president of B’nai B’rith International who the organization sent as an observer.

Sakic is charged with the deaths of 2,000 of the tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, gypsies and anti-Nazi Croats who died in the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II. He has been jailed in Croatia since his extradition in June from Argentina, where he had lived since 1947.

A court-appointed physician, Dr. Dusan Zecevic, said tests indicated Sakic was suffering from circulatory problems and that considering his age, his life could be at risk if the trial proceeded. The judge ordered Sakic transferred to a prison hospital.

The Sakic case is emotionally charged because it involves conflicts between Croats and Serbs that were reignited after wars in the former Yugoslavia this decade. Serbs made up the largest number of Jasenovac victims.

After World War II ended in 1945, the communist Yugoslav government cited Jasenovac as a symbol of fascist barbarity and the dangers of ethnic rivalries, which again exploded when Yugoslavia disintegrated starting in 1991.

Although many Croats fought against the pro-German regime of Ante Pavelic, which ran the camps, many others supported the Nazi puppet state. President Franjo Tudjman has often said the regime was an expression of Croat aspirations for independence.

Hoping to quell suspicions that the government was not serious about prosecuting Sakic, Croatian authorities have pledged to be impartial and agreed to allow the attendance of international observers.

One of them, Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said sarcastically Wednesday that he wished Sakic ``good health.″

``It’s amazing how many suspected Nazis end up in hospitals right before they are going to be brought to trial for crimes of the Holocaust,″ Zuroff said after arriving at Zagreb airport.

The number Jasenovac victims remains in dispute. Estimates range from 35,000 to more than 500,000. The U.S. Justice Department places the figure at around 125,000.

Sakic was arrested after he admitted on Argentine television that he was a commander at Jasenovac, but contended that inmates died of a ``typhus epidemic.″

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