Croatian Six – Judicial Review May Stand Tall On The Horizon Soon (40 Years On)

It was a story that captured the attention of the entire Australian nation, indeed of the world and stunned with disbelief and grief the entire Australian Croatian community. In February of 1979 six Croatian men were arrested in Sydney and nearby Lithgow on suspected activities in terrorism, i.e., alleged plan to plant bombs around Sydney, including a major water supply to the city. In 1981 they were each sentenced to 15 years of prison and always maintained their innocence of these crimes. Judicial review of this case and associated criminal convictions had been unsuccessfully applied for several times since then. Finally, though, the matter of justice for Croatian Six appears to have taken a new turn in the positive direction and a judicial review may occur soon.

In its deliberations and response to the February 2021 Sydney barrister Sebastian De Brennan and solicitor Helen Cook’s application for a review on behalf of three of the Croatian Six – Vic Brajkovic, Maks Bebic and Mile Nekic – sentenced to prison in 1981 for a conspiracy to commit bombing terrorist act, the NSW Supreme Court has in July 2022 designated Justice Robertson Wright to decide whether a judicial review should be held into the convictions of the Croatian Six indictments that are more and more appearing as trumped-up charges with planted evidence as a result of individual ASIO officers clandestine collaboration with communist Yugoslavia UDBa. The Croatian Case has frequently during the past decades been labelled as the greatest miscarriage of justice in the entire Australian history.

Justice Wright is likely to make his decision soon after examining De Brennan’s argument for a review and the NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office argument against a review. Among other material there are more than 5,000 pages of the court transcript from the dawn of the 1980’s which are filled with details demanding duly close attention.

Still, this provides the best hope ever that the Croatian Six may indeed soon come out of the dark tunnel of injustice and false accusations and receive the justice they deserve.

Soon after the 2019 publishing of Sydney based Hamish McDonald’s book on the Croatian Six case, “Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”, barrister Sebastian De Brennan and solicitor Helen Cook, with opinion from David Buchanan SC began working pro bono on a new application to the NSW chief justice.

To remind of the case things went down with the following events. In February of 1979 Vico Virkez, a man from former Yugoslavia, walked into the police station in the mining town of Lithgow and declared to the police that he was part of a Croatian conspiracy to plant bombs around Sydney that night. He was told to go home and not say anything to anyone about what he had said to the police. Later, writes Hamish McDonald, police arrived from Sydney, arrested him and his tenant Maks Bebic, and discovered crude gelignite bombs in Virkez’s old Valiant car. With names supplied by Virkez, police also raided three homes around Sydney, in each of which they found two half-sticks of gelignite in the possession of a total of five other Croatian Australians, Joe and Ilija Kokotovic, Anton Zvirotic, Vjekoslav “Vic” Brajkovic and Mile Nekic. Taken to the old Central Investigation Branch at the back of Central Court, the five confessed to the bomb plot, as had Bebic in Lithgow.

That was the police version, anyway, and along with Virkez’s account it was enough for a jury to convict the six men of conspiracy in a terror-bombing plan, and for Justice Victor Maxwell to sentence each of them to fifteen years’ jail in early 1981. Those decisions were upheld on appeal the following year. All served their time with maximum remissions for good behaviour and were out of prison by the end of the 1980s. Their jailing didn’t improve the Croatian community’s already blackened image at which Yugoslav communists, led by Serbs, worked very hard to achieve with lies and fabrications, writes McDonald.

Virkez, the informer, returned back to Yugoslavia soon after giving his statement evidence in Sydney court, and, given the case attracted a great deal of public interest in Australia, ABC Four Corners reporter Chris Masters travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina and tracked him down in 1991. There, on camera, Virkez revealed that he was a Serb (not a Croat as he told the police in Australia), Vitomir Misimovic. He stated unequivocally that his evidence of the bomb plot against the Croatian Six had been false, that he had been coached in what to say in court by NSW police.

The Six Croats, Max Bebic, Vic Brajkovic, Tony Zvirotic, brothers Joe Kokotovic and Ilija Kokotovic and Mile Nekic were released from prison early, after serving a total of about 10 years with custody pre and during trial counted around the time of Chris Master’s investigations that early on pointed to possible interference with justice and on account of their good behaviour.

After the interview with Virkez featured on the ABC’s Four Corners, two defence lawyers from the original trial, David Buchanan and Ian McClintock, applied to the NSW attorney-general for the convictions to be reviewed. Three years after the broadcast, attorney-general John Hannaford (1992-1995) decided against a review on the advice of two senior state government lawyers, Keith Mason and Rod Howie — advice still not public because of claimed legal privilege.

In 2012, Australian Commonwealth Attorney General Nicola Roxon refused to meet with a group of Australian Croats, known as Justice4Six, who had repeatedly asked her to launch an investigation into the knowledge and actions of the Australian Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Commonwealth Police related to the Croatian Six case. Her department responded that it would be “inappropriate” for the Attorney-General’s office to conduct a separate investigation, as an application for a review of the conviction was before the New South Wales Supreme Court from 1982.

The Australian Justice4Six group made the request for an investigation after an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald, headed by Hamish McDonald, produced new material, which pointed to the truth of the claims that the whole thing was set up by the UDBA, the former Yugoslav intelligence service, then that information about UDBA’s involvement in the whole case had been covered up. New material that would indicate a need to review the convictions against the Croatian Six also emerged at this time, as noted by McDonald, from scholars like John Schindler of the US Naval War College about the murderous war waged on the Croatian diaspora by Yugoslavia’s security service, the UDBa, and Virkez’s withdrawal of evidence.

David Buchanan, joined by a younger lawyer, Sebastian De Brennan, put a fresh application for a judicial review to NSW chief justice Tom Bathurst, appointed after the Coalition had taken government in New South Wales the previous year. Bathurst asked an acting justice, Graham Barr, to assess whether a review was warranted. His assessment, relying on police evidence, saw no cause to prod into convictions.

In November 2016, though, another opening emerged. Military historians John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley published the third volume of the Official History of ASIO, covering 1975–89, the final years of the cold war. In a book vetted by the organisation and based on free access to its archives, they wrote that Virkez had been working as an informant to a suspected UDBa officer in the Yugoslavian consulate-general in Sydney, that ASIO regarded many of the alleged Croatian bombings as “false-flag” operations by the UDBa, and that ASIO had failed to note the seriousness of Yugoslav intelligence activity here. The result, they concluded, was the “wrongful conviction” of the Croatian Six, wrote Hamish McDonald.

In January 2018, certain files from the Commonwealth of Australia National Archives had been opened for the public including files on Vico Virkez. They show that he had been working with a communist Yugoslavia UDBa handler in the Yugoslav Sydney consulate for six months before the arrests.

After the arrests in 1979, ASIO quickly concluded Virkez was the man working with the UDBa officer and circulated this information around state police forces through an intelligence channel. The reaction at NSW police headquarters was dismay. Assistant commissioner Roy Whitelaw contacted ASIO to say that if the men’s defence team became aware of this information, “it could blow a hole right through the police case,” writes Hamish McDonald and continues: Under its chief at the time, Harvey Barnett, ASIO tried to tone down its assessment of Virkez from “agent” to mere “informant.” Barnett wrote in the file that this reduced the likelihood of ASIO’s being accused of having been party to a miscarriage of justice. Bob Hawke government’s attorneys-general, Gareth Evans and Lionel Bowen, then signed off on moves to prevent Ian Cunliffe, by then secretary of the Australian Law Reform Commission, from raising his misgivings regarding the suppression of evidence about Virkez, writes Hamish McDonald and continues:

As Whitelaw correctly saw, this blew a big hole in the case against the Croatian Six — not just the information itself but the act of hiding it. As the counsel for the NSW Crown, Reg Blanch QC, admitted in 1986, during the brief and forlorn attempt by the Croatian Six to appeal to the High Court, it was “almost automatic” that a miscarriage of justice would be created by failure to convey relevant evidence to the defence.

This cover-up was detailed in Hamish McDonald’s book on the affair, Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six. Soon after its 2019 publishing, barrister Sebastian De Brennan and solicitor Helen Cook, with opinion from David Buchanan SC — began working pro bono on a new application to the NSW chief justice. This application is the basis upon which NSW Supreme Court has now, last month, given Justice Robertson Wright the task of advising the relevant authorities as to whether a judicial review on the Croatian Six case should be pursued. Finally, a glimpse of real hope for justice. Ina Vukic

Anatomy of Injustice – Australian Croatian Six Case Up For Judicial Inquiry 40 Years On

The Croatian Six 1979 mugshots Photo: ABC TV Four Corners

In 1981 six Australian Croatian men (Max Bebic, Vic Brajkovic, Joseph and Ilija Kokotovic, Mile Nekic, and Tony Zvirotic) were convicted of terrorism related activities on clearly largely dubious evidence and sent to prison on a 15-year sentence each for acts of terrorism in Sydney. They have always maintained their innocence. This case has for many years been dubbed as a case of the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of Australia. That label of miscarriage of justice did not originate from Australian Croatians, who had many reasons to be angry and bitter as this guilty verdict came at the time when the communist Yugoslavia machinery stopped at nothing when it came to destroying the Croatian name and Croatian people who in war (WWII) and in peace (post-WWII) stood for a free and independent Croatia – it came from others including members of Australia’s legal profession.  

It took a Serbian imposter in Australia working for the communist Yugoslavia agenda, it took an Australian/NSW police “squad” that evidently assisted that imposter’s agenda to build a damming case against the Croatian Six, and it took a Supreme Court of NSW judge, Justice Victor Maxwell’s, among other possible failings in the case, his apparent and total belief in that the NSW Police could do no wrong as well as failing to reveal to the jury that one of the presented confessions by one of the Croatian Six was unsafe (as it was unsigned) to send six Croatian men to ruin and push the reputation of the Australian Croatian community deeper into darkness of being considered “nationalist extremists and terrorists” and despair thus executing a mighty favour for the oppressive communist Yugoslavia. Judge Maxwell also refused leave for the Croatian Six defence to summon police who had arrested a seventh Croatian that night in February 1979 when the Six were arrested and who was subsequently released by a Magistrate. “In his summing up, Justice Maxwell told the jury it was a matter of whether to believe thirty-nine police officers or the six defendants, and a question of who had the motive to lie. The fact that he had suppressed two examples of police giving false evidence didn’t seem to bother him. It was, he said, ‘black and white,’” (Hamish McDonald article “Held Captive By Cold War Politics”, 5 March 2021)

On 15 February 2021, human rights and criminal law barrister Sebastian De Brennan and solicitor Helen Cook, with opinion from David Buchanan SC launched an appeal, filed for a judicial inquiry in the Supreme Court of NSW on behalf of the Croatian Six case based on new evidence disclosed in the relatively recent release of secret ASIO documents (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation),  in the recently published Official History of ASIO (John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley, 2016) and in Hamish McDonald’s book “Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six” (2019) where the facts, after extensive and thorough research, are set out.

 If successful, the guilty verdict for the Croatian Six could be overturned, more than 40 years after that terrible fact.

Launch of Hamish McDonald book 2019 Sydney (L) Hamish McDonald, (R) Marko Franovic Photo: Ina Vukic

At the end of WWII Croatia’s hopes for independence from Yugoslavia were crushed and mass murders, mass communist Yugoslavia crimes against Croatian patriots followed, filling the so far discovered 1,700 mass graves of innocent people (at least 1,000 of them are now unearthed in Croatia) with mutilated, murdered, now decomposed human remains. This horror and oppression triggered a surge in Croatians fleeing communist Yugoslavia and settling in the United States, Canada, various South American countries, Australia and others.  All the Croatians who settled in these countries were proud of their heritage and they continued their struggle for the freedom of Croatia in many ways. They established with their own work and funds and fortified many Croatian community clubs and Croatian Catholic Centres everywhere, Australia was no exception; indeed, it could be said Croatians in Australia were leading in these efforts to maintain traditions, culture and zest for independence of Croatia for all the decades that followed.

It is understandable that some Yugoslav migrants of Croatian origin should continue to hope for the establishment of an independent Croatia and within a democracy like Australia they have a right to advocate their views so long as they do so by legitimate means,” Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia 27 August 1964. (Source: Australia, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, No.HR.35, 1964, 679.)

2019 Sydney – Launch of Hamish McDonald’s Book (L) Hamish McDonald, (C) Ina Vukic, (R) Branko Miletic Photo: Ina Vukic

Throughout the stormy and turbulent 1970’s random criminal acts ending in injury and destruction often occurred in Australia. Often the finger was pointed at Croatian patriots as being involved even though their protests against communist Yugoslavia had never escalated into violence; that is a historical fact. As such an unpleasant (to say it mildly) reputation of Australian Croatians built on lies fabricated by communist Yugoslavia Secret Service UDBa grew bigger, things got alarmingly serious against Croatians when in 1979 a man named Vico Virkez walked into the Lithgow Police Station and gave the police a surprise tip-off that would lead to one of the longest criminal trials in Australia’s criminal history. Virkez was passing himself off in Lithgow as a Croatian migrant and worked at the local power station when he made a surprise confession at the Lithgow Police Station that he and his fellow members of his Croatian community were plotting a series of terrorist attacks in Sydney.

Vitomir Misimovic a.k.a. Vico Virkez, 1991 Photo: ABC TV Four Corners

So in February 1979, NSW Police announced that a group of Croatians had been arrested in Lithgow and Sydney just before planting gelignite time-bombs in targets identified with the Yugoslav regime – including the 1600-seat Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, where entertainers from Yugoslavia were about to perform.

The police swoop at the time was drummed up as an ideal and right mix of force and intelligence to grab terrorists and their explosives just in time – to save Australians! Raids on Virkez and his alleged accomplices in Lithgow and Sydney followed quickly and mercilessly.

Many questions were left unanswered despite the 1981 Supreme Court verdict. The Croatian informer Virkez who was the prosecution’s linchpin disappeared soon after he received a two-year sentence and while the trial against the Six was still afoot, on its tail end. In 1990 the Croatian Six were released from prison on the ground of good behaviour, having spent ten years in prison. In prison they had reportedly endured severe beatings, isolation and mental torture.

Sydney 2019 at the launch of Hamish McDonald book (L) Chris Masters, (R) Ina Vukic

In 1991 the ABC TV Four Corners’ award-winning investigative journalist Chris Masters, went looking for Virkez and found him in the then Yugoslavia, in a village in Bosnia Herzegvina, discovering that he was a Serb, Vitomir Misimovic, who masqueraded in Australia as a Croatian nationalist having infiltrated the Australian Croatian Community as an operative of Communist Yugoslavia Secret Service (UDBa) whose main goal at the time was to destroy in any which way the Croatians abroad who were pursuing the idea of freedom for Croatia from communist Yugoslavia.

In the ABC TV Four Corners program on the Croatian Six in 1991 Chris Masters among other things said “…Tonight, the spy who came in from the cold… he disappeared from Australia 11 years ago after exposing a major terrorist plot. When Four Corners tracked him down, he confessed to perjury that cost six men a total of 50 years in prison… The man who used to be known as Vico Virkez was found in a farmyard in a very Serbian corner of Yugoslavia. This Balkan James Bond turned out to be a modest pig farmer with an immodest imagination…” Chris Masters said about the interview with Virkez:  “It was a long conversation, Virkez has not spoken English for some time but one thing he made clear as he had made clear in a letter to Malcolm Fraser (Prime Minister of Australia) before the trial was that the evidence in his three statements was not his own.” Masters asked Virkez: “In the court was the evidence you gave all of the truth?”  “No,“ Virkez replied. Masters: “Were you given any instructions by police about what to say?”. “I was told what I have to say there,” Virkez replied. “Did they make you tell lies?” Masters asked. “I did that because they say this is all true I didn’t know if it was true or not,” Virkez replied.   

In court, in the case against the Croatian Six, Virkez had evidently kept to a script written by police. None of the six were guilty of the bombing conspiracy yet they served long prison sentences for it.

Three years after the Chris Masters Four Corners broadcast, NSW attorney-general John Hannaford decided against a review of the Croatian Six case reportedly on advice of two senior state government lawyers, Keith Mason and Rod Howie — advice still not public because of claimed legal privilege.

In 1990’s the secrets that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s adviser Ian Cunliffe discovered began to leak but it was not until 2007 that these secrets revealed had taken the Australian investigative journalist and author, Hamish McDonald, on a quest for justice for Croatian Six.

In 2007, in the case of the killing of five Australian television newsmen at Balibo, in Portuguese Timor, in 1975, Hamish McDonald “spent two months in the old coroner’s court on Sydney’s Parramatta Road listening to former officials, signals intelligence operatives, Timorese civil war veterans and even former prime minister Gough Whitlam testify to what they knew. One witness was Ian Cunliffe, a former federal government lawyer who’d served on Justice Robert Hope’s late-1970s royal commission into the intelligence services. He had seen an Indonesian signals intercept concerning the Balibo deaths that he felt had been covered up.

Asked by his lawyer if he knew of other instances of intelligence being withheld from the government, Cunliffe instanced ‘a criminal trial in Sydney involving six defendants.’ Canberra officials had agreed to keep material from the prime minister, he said, and had been willing to make intelligence material disappear if it was subpoenaed by defence lawyers.

During the court’s morning tea break, I asked Cunliffe which case he was referring to. ‘The Croatian Six,’ he replied cryptically,writes Hamish McDonald.

Framed – the untold story about the Croatian Six, by Hamish McDonald 2012 was Sydney Morning Herald’s first ebook, investigates the fate of six men jailed for up to a decade over plans to blow up a Sydney theatre in 1979 as part of a Croat terrorist plot.

Hamish McDonald spent months tracking down the surviving members of the Croatian six, the police and others involved in the case. His findings strengthen suspicions that these convictions are, as one former senior Australian official puts it, “a grave injustice”.  

McDonald also investigates the role in the case of the Yugoslav state security service, which used Australian police and intelligence services as tools to blacken the reputation of Croatian-Australians as extremists.

According to McDonald, vital evidence in proving the innocence of the Croatian Six and Indonesian culpability in the murder of the Balibo Five was suppressed by the Australian federal government on the grounds of “national security.”

In January 2018… I went to Canberra and found myself reading through two files on Virkez. They showed that he had been working with a UDBa handler in the Sydney consulate for six months before the arrests, speaking by telephone and meeting in Sydney, in all cases monitored by ASIO.

After the arrests (of Croatian Six), ASIO quickly concluded Virkez was the man working with the UDBa officer and circulated this information around state police forces through an intelligence channel. The reaction at NSW police headquarters was dismay. Assistant commissioner Roy Whitelaw contacted ASIO to say that if the men’s defence team became aware of this information, ‘it could blow a hole right through the police case.’

ASIO was initially inclined to let the NSW police reveal the information about Virkez as long as the source and wire-tapping involved were not revealed. It appears that Whitelaw opted not to pass it on, certainly not as far as crown prosecutor Shillington. With the court case set, ASIO then opted to throw a blanket around the evidence, persuading federal attorney-general Peter Durack to strenuously oppose the defence subpoenas during the trial and appeal.

Under its chief at the time, Harvey Barnett, ASIO tried to tone down its assessment of Virkez from ‘agent’ to mere ‘informant.’ Barnett wrote in the file that this reduced the likelihood of ASIO’s being accused of having been party to a miscarriage of justice. The Hawke government’s attorneys-general, Gareth Evans and Lionel Bowen, then signed off on moves to prevent Ian Cunliffe, by then secretary of the Australian Law Reform Commission, from raising his misgivings regarding the suppression of evidence about Virkez,” McDonald wrote in his March 5, 2021 article.

This cover-up was detailed in his book on the affair, Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six, which was published in 2019.

2010 Australian White Paper on Counter-Terrorism Photo: page screenshot

What is also telling of a cover-up and miscarriage of justice for the Croatian Six is that when in 2010, Kevin Rudd’s Australian Federal Government released its White Paper on counter-terrorism (PDF here), it was curiously surprising to discover that it omitted to mention from its list of terrorist attacks and major foiled attempts in Australia over the past 40 years the acts that the Croatian Six spent a total of 50 years in prison for! Australia’s White Paper on Counter-terrorism omitted to list that NSW police were said to have stopped the imminent bombing of Sydney’s Elizabethan Theatre during an event attended by up to 1600 people, the bombing of several city businesses and the cutting of Sydney’s water supply!

This government White Paper explains the nature of the terrorist threat to Australia within Australia’s broader national security context, sets out the Australian Government’s strategy for countering terrorism, and details the policy settings by which the Government will implement its counter-terrorism strategy. Since it did not mention the Croatian Six, since it did not boast how its counter-terrorist operations stopped that large terrorist act no terrorism was attempted by the Croatian Six nor committed. One may indeed hope, then, that the current judicial inquest/appeal against the 1981 conviction of Croatian Six will find the same as the 2010 Australian White Paper on Counter-Terrorism and their convictions – quashed. Ina Vukic

Communist Yugoslavia Terror Against Croatians

Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six

To the Croatian Australian community it was a shattering blow to their standing in the wider Australian community. They were tainted with the aura of terrorism and little did Australia know it was all a set up by the Yugoslav intelligence agency to achieve exactly this.

REASONABLE DOUBT: SPIES, POLICE AND THE CROATIAN SIX

Watch this video and follow a journalist’s (Hamish McDonald) journey for justice.

 

 

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