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A Good Son : In a Lonely Crusade Against World Opinion, Rad Artukovic Fights for a Father Accused of Directing the Holocaust in Croatia

May 18, 1986|PATT MORRISON | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer.

A restless 3-year-old boy sat toward the back of a musty Los Angeles federal courtroom, alternately running a red toy fire truck across the seat and gnawing distractedly on the back of the wooden bench in front of him.

His mother's friends had bought him the toy to keep him quiet and occupied in court. His two elder sisters had put on new dresses that day, matching ones, with red and blue and yellow designs that caught the boy's eye. This was a big occasion: Their father had been arrested at his desk at his brother's contracting company 10 days earlier, on a Yugoslavian government charge of murdering a Serbian archbishop nine years before, and the children had been allowed to come to court on their best behavior especially to see him.

The two girls would be teen-agers by the time, eight years later, a judge ruled that their father would not be extradited on murder charges. The boy would be a father himself by the time the case was revived, a quarter-century later, with different results.

But suddenly there were murmurs, and way up in front the little boy saw his father stride in and raise his handcuffed hands over his head, as his supporters, packed into the hot courtroom, roared their cheers.

The boy's earliest memory has shaped the man's life. Radoslav Artukovic, once that child with the fire engine, is 38 now and spends his adult energies fighting his father's fires.

In fact, they are more than mere fires--they are international conflagrations. Radoslav's father is Andrija Artukovic, now a sometimes befuddled, purblind man of 86, extradited to Yugoslavia in February, after nearly 40 years in Southern California, for trial as a war criminal--a former cabinet minister in a short-lived wartime Croatian government that executed tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies with a zeal matching that of its Nazi allies. In a Zagreb courthouse this month, in the heart of the Croatian homeland where Artukovic once held high rank, Radoslav watched once more, from a different court bench, as his father shuffled in from a hospital cell and slid into an armchair within a bulletproof cubicle much like the one built for Adolf Eichmann's war-crimes trial in Israel a quarter-century ago. The world sees an aging ally of Adolf Hitler's ghastly war machine; Radoslav sees the father who taught him to read by scratching letters in the beach sand on twilit evenings.

There would be no red fire truck this round, no cheering from the front of the courtroom. The Yugoslavs had anticipated this proceeding for a long time. It would take place under the eyes of five judges and 175 closely screened spectators--foreign reporters, World War II veterans, survivors of the Croatian concentration camps and, again, Radoslav Artukovic.

The sins of which a father stands accused have reached out across history to change the life of the son. The genial stockbroker who coaches a kids' soccer team, drinks California jug wine and directs visitors to find his house by the baseball scuff marks on the garage door from his son's pitching practice, is one thing more: the only son of a man labeled "the Butcher of the Balkans."

"Of all the families to be born in," he says disarmingly, "I sure got an interesting one." To almost anyone else, it would seem a battle now over, time to absorb losses. Two governments--U.S. and Yugoslavian--and world opinion are against him. But with a stockbroker's instinct for risk, he relishes a fight: "There's no bigger challenge than this."

With relentless vigor, he has captained and championed his father's cause--a cause for which "unpopular" is a timid understatement--unabashedly using the force of his genuinely nice-guy personality, the "my God, what if that was me ?" factor, the American sense of fair play, as tools in his crusade. Conviction and second-generation immunity have made him bold: He hired an excellent extradition lawyer--a Jewish one--for his father's latest defense; he has chatted aggressively with members of the militant Jewish Defense League; he once sat in a synagogue hall, taking notes as a speaker denounced his dad.

When he signed onto his father's team 10 years ago, he had no real idea that he would find himself a part of the Old World way in the New World, the fervor of Croatian nationalism. For that is what the senior Artukovic represents to some Croatian expatriates: not the slaughterer of thousands, but the heroic survivor of the time when, briefly, they had a country of their own.

Already, though, Rad sometimes slips into the past tense when speaking of his father: "I've made my farewells to my dad as a person. . . . He now belongs to history. Maybe he always did."

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