Dinko Sakic

Pro-Nazi Croatian concentration camp commander

Born: 8 September, 1921, in Studenci, Croatia.

Died: 20 July, 2008, in Zagreb, aged 86.

AS AN officer in the pro-Nazi Croatian military regime during the Second World War, Dinko Sakic commanded Jasenovac, Croatia's most notorious concentration camp, where at least tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, gypsies and suspected Croatian communists perished. He lived most of the rest of his life in freedom in South America until Israeli Nazi hunters tracked him down in 1998 and he was sentenced in his homeland to 20 years for war crimes. He died of heart problems in a Zagreb prison hospital on Sunday.

The 1999 ruling against Sakic by a Zagreb court said he was responsible for "mass and systematic torture, killings, inhuman treatment, terror and intimidation", and that he personally executed 24 inmates. According to the indictment, he shot one Jewish prisoner because he was found with a stolen cob of corn and two others because he caught them "laughing without explanation". On hearing the verdict, Sakic sneered and sarcastically applauded. "It was all harmless. There were no cremation ovens," he had insisted. "They died from an epidemic of typhoid." Even on his deathbed, he said he never regretted his actions or those of his subordinates in the ustase fascist regime, saying they were "for the good of the fatherland".

In an interview later in his life he said: "I am proud of what I did and would do it again.

"Jasenovac was a legal institution based on law, where all those proved to have worked for the destruction of the Croatian state, and who had been dangerous for public order and safety, were interned.

"Considering the duration and population of the camp, the death rate was natural and normal. If we shot people, we did it on the basis of the law. There are no states in the world that don't have prisons and camps, and somebody has to perform this thankless duty. I regret that we hadn't done all that is imputed to us, for, had we done that then, today Croatia would not have had problems. There wouldn't have been people to write these lies."

Sakic was a 20-year-old army officer when his hero, Croatian nationalist Ante Pavelic, set up the Independent State of Croatia (known by its Croatian initials NDH) in 1941, breaking away from Yugoslavia with the backing of Adolf Hitler and Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The two military dictators saw the new regime as a useful buffer against communism.

Pavelic took Sakic under his wing and appointed him commander of the Jasenovac internment camp, 50 miles south of Zagreb, in December 1942 with the aim of what would later become known as "ethnic cleansing" – ridding Croatia of Serbs, Jews, gypsies, Croatian communists and others who opposed the ustase regime or the axis powers.

Sakic's stated policy was that those Orthodox Serbs or Jews who converted to Catholicism would be spared internment, a policy which caused the Vatican at the time to turn a blind eye to what would later prove to be mass murder.

Testimony at the Nuremberg war crimes trials suggested that even Nazi officers were shocked at the atrocities they discovered at Jasenovac and around 40 other Croatian camps, where a famous ustase poster proclaimed: "The ustase movement is based on religion. For the minorities – Serbs, Jews and gypsies, we have three million bullets. We shall kill one part of the Serbs. We shall transport another. The rest of them will be forced to embrace the Roman Catholic religion."

Documents from the Nuremberg war crimes trials suggest the Vatican played a key role in getting Sakic and Pavelic out of Croatia after the allied victory. Sakic first received refuge from Spanish military dictator General Francisco Franco before fleeing to Argentina in 1947 and settling in the Atlantic coastal resort of Santa Teresita. There he lived quietly for 51 years before admitting in an Argentine TV interview in April 1998 that he had commanded Jasenovac from 1942-44.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which seeks to trace Nazi war criminals, immediately demanded he face trial and the Argentine president of the time, Carlos Menem, under strong pressure from his country's significant Jewish population, extradited him to Croatia to face trial.

Dinko Sakic is survived by his wife, Nada, who was extradited from Argentina with him. Although some camp survivors implicated her in maltreatment, she faced no charges in Croatia.

PHIL DAVISON