Australia's longest-running terrorism saga is set to finally end - 44 years, 1 month and 7 days after it began, writes Branko Miletic.
IT SEEMS the wheels of justice have finally started to turn for Max Bebic, Vic Brajkovic, Tony Zvirotic, Joe Kokotovic, his brother Ilija Kokotovic and Mile Nekic - also known as the Croatian Six.
Back on 30 August 2022, decades after their initial arrest on 8 February 1979, the Supreme Court of NSW directed that an inquiry be conducted into the convictions of the Croatian Six, with judge Justice Robertson Wright finding that he was 'comfortably satisfied, that there are a number of doubts or questions as to parts of the evidence in the case and the guilt of the Croatian Six'.
Justice Wright also said there was a 'real possibility that the Yugoslav Intelligence Service [UDBA] used [a Bosnian Serb by the name of Vico] Virkez as an agent provocateur or informer, to cause false information to be given to the NSW Police, and possibly ASIO, as to the existence of a bombing conspiracy involving the Croatian Six, in order to discredit Croatians in Australia'.
Now, nearly seven months later, the NSW Supreme Court has announced the appointment of Justice R A Hulme to lead an inquiry into the Croatian Six case.
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Justice Hulme was sworn in as a judge for the NSW Supreme Court in 2009 and has worked on both defence and prosecution.
Early on in his career, Justice Hulme assisted Justice James Wood in overturning the Ananda Marga convictions during the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service, also known as the Wood Royal Commission, that was held between 1995-97.
The Ananda Marga case, or the Yagoona Three case, was in many ways eerily similar to that of the Croatian Six.
Having served six years behind bars for the 1978 Hilton bombing, the Yagoona Three were pardoned after a judicial inquiry cast doubt on the evidence of their key accuser, police informer Richard Seary.
The most well-known of the Yagoona Three is Tim Anderson, a controversial academic, activist and former Sydney University senior lecturer.
Interestingly, some of the arresting police were the same in both cases, now widely accepted as being two of Australia's most notorious miscarriages of justice.
Disgraced former detective Roger Rogerson, one of the arresting officers, later admitted that planting evidence during the 1970s and '80s was part of police culture.
However, the incredulity in the Croatian Six case went even further.
Firstly, in the Croatian Six scenario, there was no bombing unlike the Hilton atrocity and secondly, the "evidence" looked positively cartoonish. For example, sticks of gelignite sticky taped to old-fashioned alarm clocks were shown at the trial as "evidence".
To this day, this trial is infamous for being Australia's longest criminal trial.
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In a 1991 ABC Four Corners program, Virkez admitted to journalist Chris Masters that he had received undercover training which came from his membership of the Serbian Black Hand; had been acting as a spy in Australia; had lied at trial; had been coached and told by police things that he needed to say; had made deals with the authorities; and had thought that the Croatian Six were innocent.
Despite that, on 13 July 1994, the Governor of NSW refused applications for a retrial.
As to the police officers' evidence, all six men denied that they had made the confessional statements that police sought to attribute to them and four of the six alleged they had been severely beaten by police.
Furthermore, except for one man who worked in demolition, they all denied possessing explosives or associated equipment and contended that the police evidence of explosives and equipment had been planted on them, and that Virkez had stolen these himself from a power station.
Despite a strenuous defence, all six were convicted and sentenced to serve 15 years imprisonment.
The remaining five living defendants - Mile Nekic died in December last year - to this day maintain their innocence.
In 2012, Hamish McDonald, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published a short e-book, Framed, which dealt with the Croatian Six case, then in 2016 following this up with his in-depth book, Reasonable Doubt, which exposed the entire case as being a false flag operating, most probably run by the UDBA.
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Sebastian De Brennan, the criminal and human rights lawyer who has been working to see the Croatian Six declared innocent since 2012, said:
John R Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College said that the Croatian Six affair was 'a "classic" agent provocateur operation run by the intelligence agency of the then communist regime in Belgrade, known as the UDBA, against exile communities that were against the Yugoslavian federation'.
He also claimed that former UDBA officials said that the Croatian Six case was "one of their great successes" in completely discrediting the Croatian Australians. According to Schindler, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) would have - or at least should have - been aware of UDBA's involvement.
According to the NSW Supreme Court, the inquiry into the Croatian Six case is set to begin in the second half of 2023.
Branko Miletic is a journalist, editor, historian and author who has written extensively on the wars in the Balkans and post-Yugoslavia politics for the past 20 years. You can follow Branko on Twitter @journovox9.