Andrija Artukovic, the highest-ranking Nazi extradited from the United States, died in a Yugoslav prison hospital Saturday while awaiting execution for helping to run concentration camps where hundreds of thousands perished, the state news agency announced Monday. He was 88.
The official news agency gave no cause of death. But Artukovic had been in fading health for years. A Yugoslav court announced last April that his death by firing squad was being postponed because he was too frail.
Artukovic, who served as interior minister of the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia during World War II, spent nearly half his life in the Orange County community of Seal Beach. He was admitted to the United States after the war under an assumed name. For a short time, he faded into obscurity in Seal Beach, working as a bookkeeper for his brother's construction company. But soon he became the subject of a legal fight that flared intermittently for 35 years.
Known in the Yugoslav press as the "Butcher of the Balkans," Artukovic was finally extradited to Yugoslavia in 1986 to be tried for war crimes.
A Yugoslav court convicted him of four specific instances of murder--ordering the deaths of a lawyer and former member of Parliament in early 1941; ordering the deaths by machine-gun fire of 450 men, women and children in late 1941 because there was no room for them in a concentration camp; ordering the killing of the entire population of a town called Vrgin Most and its surrounding villages in 1942, and ordering the execution of "several hundred" prisoners at the castle of Samobor near Zagreb in 1943 by having them driven into an open field, where they were machine-gunned and then crushed by tanks.
In its verdict, the Yugoslav court also found him responsible for running two dozen concentration camps where 700,000 to 900,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and other prisoners were tortured and put to death.
Artukovic, who was said by his lawyers to be blind and nearly deaf, nonetheless was able to respond vigorously to two hours of questioning by the court, during which he denied participating in any war crimes.
His son, Radoslav Artukovic, said Monday that he does not believe his father was a war criminal and will fight for his vindication as a historical figure.
Son States Case
"He was a civilian cabinet minister in the independent state of Croatia," said the son, a 39-year-old trader at the Pacific Stock Exchange. "They're saying he was responsible for running camps and the police . . . and that's simply not the case.
"I am proud of him because I believe I know the man he really was," the younger Artukovic continued, saying that much of the evidence against his father was trumped up. "He died where he wanted to die--in Croatia. And he died in a political context as a Croatian political prisoner. My efforts as his son will not cease."
Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, dismissed the son's contentions as wishful thinking. "I cannot help but admire the son who defends the father," Breitbart said, "but by the same token I cannot in all conscience condone anyone who does it by trying to deny the facts of history. And that fact is quite simple. Andrija Artukovic was indeed 'the Butcher of the Balkans,' a murderer who will go down in history with the likes of Heinrich Himmler . . . and Adolf Hitler."
It is not disputed that Artukovic, one of 14 children raised on a farm, became minister of the interior and then minister of justice in the regime of Ante Pavelic, a fascist who was given control of much of Yugoslavia in 1941 after the former government fell to the Nazis.
Brutality of Croatia
Pavelic's regime renamed its territory Croatia and was characterized by a fierce nationalism, near-fanatical adherence to the Roman Catholic Church and extreme brutality.
A series of racial decrees similar to those issued in Nazi Germany required purges of Serbs, Gypsies and Jews.
The Yugoslav government has said that the racial decrees were signed by Artukovic and enforced by an elite military corps--the Ustashi--which he commanded.
After the war, Communist partisans who had fought the regime took power, reunited Croatia with the rest of Yugoslavia and asked the United Nations War Crimes Commission to put Artukovic's name on a list of Yugoslav war criminals.
By then, Artukovic had fled to the United States, entering illegally under the name Alois Anich.
In 1951, Yugoslavia formally asked for his extradition, citing 1,239 murders by Ustashi officers under his control, and Artukovic was ordered deported in 1953. But he appealed, and in 1959, after eight years of litigation, a U.S. magistrate blocked the deportation, declaring Yugoslavia's charges "political in character." The magistrate discounted evidence supplied by the Communist Yugoslav government as "mere speculation."
Called Victim of Communists