Feature 03 Aug 16

Yugoslav Spy Saga Puts Assassinations in Spotlight

The murder case against former intelligence officials Zdravko Mustac and Josip Perkovic caused political embarrassment for Croatia and revived questions about the killings of Yugoslav dissidents abroad.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Zdravko Mustac (left) and Josip Perkovic (right) in court in Munich. Photo: Beta/Peter Kneffel

The case against former intelligence chiefs Zdravko Mustac and Josip Perkovic, who were convicted in Munich on Wednesday of abetting the murder of a Croatian émigré in 1983, became the focus of much speculation more than a year before it reached court.

In the run-up to Croatia joining the EU on July 1, 2013, there was the first talk of Germany bringing the two men to trial using a European arrest warrant, which compels any member state to arrest and transfer criminal suspects to the country that wants them.

But on June 28, 2013, in the last days before joining, the Croatian parliament, on the initiative of the centre-left government and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, passed a law which stipulated that the European arrest warrant was only valid for crimes committed after 2002.

This would have prevented the extradition of Mustac and Perkovic, causing the media to dub the legislation ‘Lex Perkovic’.

The government claimed that it decided to adopt the law to prevent Croatian war veterans from being extradited, but there was unsubstantiated speculation that the former spy chiefs might reveal secrets in court that could embarrass the state.

The passing of the law triggered a backlash from Berlin and Brussels.

In September 2013, Mina Andreeva, the spokesperson for EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, warned Croatia to change it “quickly and unconditionally” or the European Commission would take “appropriate measures”.

Later the same month, the day after her Christian Democratic Party won parliamentary elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she hoped Croatia would harmonise its extradition law with European legislation “as it was agreed with the EU”.

Just days afterwards, the Croatian government succumbed to the pressure and said it would alter the law, enabling the two men’s extradition after the legislation came into force at the start of January 2014.

Arrest warrants for Perkovic and Mustac came in early January, and Zagreb County Court and the Supreme Court quickly confirmed the warrant for Perkovic, who was extradited the same month to Munich, while Mustac was sent to Germany at the end of April.

The case - which was the first trial of former intelligence officials from the Croatian branch of the SDS (more popularly known as UDBA) - also raised the issue of the killings of Yugoslav dissidents abroad.

According to the prosecution, from the 1960s until the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, there were over 60 murders of Yugoslav émigrés in West Germany which were probably carried out by the SDS. Twenty-two of them were Croat émigrés killed between 1970 and 1989.

Yugoslavia justified some of these killings by claiming they were anti-terrorist operations, as some émigrés did use terrorist methods while fighting against the Communist state.

After becoming independent in the 1990s, Croatia did not address the killings and gave jobs to former SDS officials. Perkovic joined Croatia’s defence ministry in 1991, where he was an assistant to the defence minister until 1992, after which he became the senior adviser to the minister.

Perkovic claimed that Yugoslav federal intelligence agencies had killed the émigré Stepjan Djurekovic, while he had only worked for the SDS’s Croatian branch, but the Munich court rejected this argument.

An authorised assassination

At the time of the murder of émigré Stjepan Djurekovic in Munich in 1983, Mustac was head of the Croatian branch of the SDS and Perkovic was chief of its department responsible for émigrés.

“In late 1982 or early 1983 Zdravko Mustac authorised Perkovic to begin preparations for the assassination of Stjepan Djurekovic,” presiding judge Manfred Dauster told the court while announcing the verdict on Wednesday.

The court said that Mustac and Perkovic staged the killing to silence Djurekovic because he knew about the alleged criminal activities of Vanja Spiljak - the son of Mika Spiljak, a member of the Yugoslav presidency - at the state-owned energy company INA.

Djurekovic worked for INA as its marketing director before he fled to Germany in 1982.

He was killed in a garage in Wolfsrathausen near Munich, where he printed anti-Yugoslav propaganda material.

“The motive for the removal of Djurekovic was his hostile actions [against Yugoslavia] and involvement in a fraud at [Croatian energy company] INA,” judge Dauster said.

“It was believed that the elimination of Djurekovic would eliminate the problem with the INA, which had become a huge burden for the republican leadership due to the investigation of a fraud amounting to several million dollars,” he added.

A crucial figure in the killing of Djurekovic was SDS informant Krunoslav Prates, who was jailed for life by a German court in 2008 for his involvement in the murder.

Prates called Djurekovic to a meeting in the garage on the day he was murdered. The killers were waiting for him inside the garage after entering with a key that Prates gave them.

As the head of the SDS section dealing with émigrés, Perkovic was Prates’s handler, the judge said.

However, Prates said in court during the trial that the allegation about the key was “a made-up story”, going back on his previous statements to German investigators.

Another important witness was former SDS agent Vinko Sindicic, who has already served prison time in Britain for the attempted murder of Croat émigré Nikola Stedul, in Scotland in 1988.

Sindicic named the men who he claimed were Djurekovic’s murderers in court in July.

Throughout the trial, the defence speculated that Djurekovic could have been murdered because he was passing Yugoslav military secrets to West Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND.

The defence also argued that the intention was to kidnap Djurekovic, and the murder was not planned in advance by the SDS officials.

According to the BND’s records, Djurekovic worked for German intelligence from 1975 to 1983. Former BND agent Rudolf Wollwerth also confirmed in court that the agency “was paying Djurekovic well”.

However the court rejected this line of reasoning and found Mustac and Perkovic guilty.

The defence lawyers for the two men have already said that they will appeal.

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