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

Interview With Covid-19 Survivor Marko Franovic

 

Marko Franovic, July 2020
Photo: BokaCroPress

Interview conducted by Ina Vukic

Croatian born Marko Franovic, a most successful businessman and a generous benefactor and philanthropist particularly for causes directly relating to the achievement of Croatia’s independence and promotion of its truths. Living in Australia (Sydney) for decades he has never abandoned the good fight for Croatia and indeed, with his intense passion served as one of its freedom wheels.  Fleeing communist Yugoslavia in 1960, after some months in refugee camps in Northern Italy he ended up in Australia’s Bonegilla Migrant Centre and then in Sydney and was later joined by his two brothers (Bozo and Ivo), who also fled communist Yugoslavia. Approaching his 80th birthday (which will be celebrated in 2021) he contracted COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and survived. The path to his full recovery was harsh, demanding and still continues but, seeing him four months after the infection one is in awe and filled with tender hope amidst the darkness seen around COVID-19 on a daily basis. Today we read of more than 17.4 million cases and more than 670,000 deaths attributed to the virus.

COVID-19 cases July 2020
Photo: Screenshot John Hopkins University, Coronavirus Resource Center

So what is it really like to have been infected with COVID-19 Coronavirus and come out the other side recovered and pursuing life to as fullest as possible? Here is what Mr Franovic had to say in my interview with him.

In March of this year you were infected with COVID-19 Coronavirus. Can you tell us what happened?

I was invited to a dinner in Sydney with about 100 people from all over Australia and the possibility exists that I was infected with the virus there; the place was crowded. Before that day I hadn’t been anywhere where there were large crowds or lots of people in one place for an assembly of sorts.

When did you first feel that you may be ill from COVID-19? That is, what did you feel, what symptoms?

A couple of days after that dinner I began to feel some kind of weakness, I simply did not have control over myself, I wasn’t capable of driving a car. I went to the hospital for COVID-19 testing.

Did you feel like fighting the virus before you ended up in hospital? Did you try and resist the symptoms of the illness?

To tell you the truth, I did not believe at the time in such symptoms of the virus. I was sceptical about a virus causing so many consequences. I did not want to believe that I was infected. Given that the medical findings upon X-ray screenings of my heart were all good I went home from the hospital, thinking everything was fine with me.

After how long and with what symptoms did you end up in hospital, again?

After I arrived home my condition began deteriorating. General weakness, I could not getu up from the bed, my breathing was laboured and difficult and I felt a constant pressure against my lungs and, hence, ended up in hospital again.

What happened in hospital, how did it all go and what was undertaken to get you back to health?

On the fifth day my health condition began deteriorating rapidly. When I was started on 9l of Oxygen they transferred me into the intensive care unit. After that they put me onto a respirator and I was in an induced coma for 25 days and on dialysis for 30 days. My kidneys were failing, pneumonia developed, my liver was infected, my gall bladder presented with problems (I will need surgery), I suffer from diabetes, and with all that I contracted blood infection – sepsis.

It must have been very difficult to discover how much your illness was life-threatening. How did you carry yourself with such a realisation? What was the most difficult part of your healing?

As I was in an induced coma, I was not aware of anything, which perhaps is a good thing. When I woke up from the coma I initially did not know where I was, I don’t remember anything. The first thing I asked was whether one of my company’s jobs had been completed. Lying in bed on my back for two months I could not turn to the side (I usually sleep on the side), it was very difficult for me. I lost 11 kilograms of my body weight while I was in hospital.

What was the most important thing for you during your treatment?

Given that I was not conscious during the time of my „sleep“ whatever they did was fruitful, brought about good results.

How would you comment on the health services that were provided to you?

I was treated in Sutherland Hospital. I have no words that would adequately describe the care that I experienced there. Words fail me when I try to describe the care I recevided from medical staff there. In caring for the sick these people risk their own lives and the lives of their families every day. I think the public doesn’t respect them enough. I can say that I am alive now because of their efforts.

I was treated with the experimental drug Hydroxychloroquine and an another medication in the combination. Did this help me? I do not know. When I woke up I was told that I must have a strong wish for life because, they said, I fought and that it was much due to that will for life that I survived. The doctors consider my recovery a miracle.

I believe you had heard while in hospital, while you were so weak due to COVID-19 infection that thousands of people across the world were praying for your recovery. How did those prayers affect you, how much did they mean to you?

Being in a coma I was not aware that people were praying for me. There are no words with which I can express my gratitude for the prayers for my recovery. I was amazed, words failed me when I was told of this. Sometimes I feel as if I’m still confused because I feel as if I need to make up for the lost time through the long „sleep“. So much has changed from March of this year, the whole world is different. I don’t know whether you can place yourself in a situation where you wake up and you realise that a whole month has passed by through which unbelievable events had occurred throughout the world.  It’s like falling from planet Mars, and now I constantly look at what had occurred and try to stay up to date with things.

What did you feel when the hospital doctors told you you could go home?

What do you think I felt? I could not walk properly, I was emotionally shaken by everything that had happened. I have a family, I worried about them, I worried about work, I did not not know how long my full recovery will last after the hospitalisation.

How is you full recovery coming along?

It’s unbelievable that my lungs have recovered so well and that my kidneys no longer pose a problem. I still have problems with walking but with ongoing exercising it’s getting better by the day. A week after I came out of hospital I went to work. I now work full time, my brain functions well and full recovery will take a bit longer. As I’m in advanced years of my life some things will take a bit longer to recover, but it’s getting better. I see progress every day.

When you now look at the dangerous state your health was in due to Coronavirus and when you look at the path of your recovery do you think that you have been given a second chance at life?

I am grateful for having been given a second chance. Many younger people have not been as fortunate. Many families are wrapped up in mourning black. I respect life more now.

Marko Franovic in his office July 2020
Photo: BokaCroPress

Are you planning on staying active with work? Has anything changed with that due to Coronavirus infection and its consequences for you?

Well, as I said above I am back at work full swing. Walking gets slower and more tiresome but I’m building up my energy; I tend to my other medical issues with the intent of staying as strong as possible. I was never the one to give up on working, or contributing with work in my companies’ success.  As long as my health and my fighting spirit allow me – I will work.

Do you have any message to pass on regarding COVID-19 Coronavirus?

Yes I have. As it has been told us, we should adhere to the instructions given to us about COVID-19. Hand washing, social distancing, wearing a mask; all that has its own reasons and it is up to us to comply with what is asked of us. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions have been infected. I don’t even want to talk about the economic crisis that has emerged but I do want to say that we are all in it and that we need to help each other to stay healthy, to look after our elderly, not to be arrogant and think that the virus will not touch us. You never know when and how it can strike at us. From my personal experience I can say to your readers: look after yourselves and, once again, thank you for all the prayers for my recovery, which evidently have been answered and granted.

On Saint Benedict Day In 2020

St Benedict of Norcia

Today, 21st March marks the day when in 547 AD Saint Benedict of Norcia, patron Saint of Europe, died.

Today, 21 March 2020 is the day that marks a need for exceptional courage and humanity due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus) devastation throughout the World. With the frightening onslaught of the coronavirus affecting multiple facets of people’s lives, one can easily fall into a tailspin of anxious thoughts and seemingly insurmountable fears. With so much suffering and discord dominating the headlines – and even our personal lives – we may miss all the good things happening around us. So, make an effort to find positive things around you, make an effort to make life easier for those you love and stay connected – virtually or in person; in personal contacts use caution – do not abandon!

St. Benedict used the family structure as the basis for his Rule for his monasteries. The community life of a monastery imitates the primary unit of society, a family.  Vice versa, the family can use the Rule as for guidelines for structure in daily life and prayer.

Founder of a monastery at Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, in the sixth century, St Benedict intended his Rule to be a practical guide to Christian monastic life. Based on the key precepts of humility, obedience and love, its aim is to create a harmonious and efficient religious community in which individuals can make progress in the Christian virtues and gain eternal life. Here, Benedict sets out ideal monastery routines and regulations, from the qualities of a good abbot, the twelve steps to humility and the value of silence to such everyday matters as kitchen duties, care of the sick and the suitable punishment for lateness at mealtimes. Benedict’s legacy is still strong – his Rule remains a source of inspiration and a key work in the history of the Christian church.

The Rule of St. Benedict is a timeless document – in so many ways as fresh and relevant as it was when it was written almost fifteen hundred years ago. Although written for monastics, many of the issues addressed in the Rule can be applied to life in the world outside the monastic community. The qualities which make up a valued life – humility, patience, simplicity, solitude, caring for others, and living in community – concern everyone. These specifics of the Rule, and the framework it provides, have great meaning for people who are seeking to live out their faith in the world today.

Many say that prayers will not stop the Coronavirus and they may be right but we must humble ourselves and remember what every faith tradition reveals: that God is present among the most vulnerable among us, and that if we act now to protect those at the bottom we have the greatest chance of protecting us all.

On that note here is a St. Benedict prayer:

“O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge myself to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength.

Not to kill. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honour all persons. Not to do to another what I would not wish done to myself. To relieve the poor. To clothe the naked. To help in trouble. To console the sorrowing.

Not to give way to anger. Not to foster a desire for revenge. Not to entertain deceit in the heart. Not to make a false peace. Not to forsake charity. To speak the truth with heart and tongue. Not to return evil for evil. To do no injury: yea, even to bear patiently any injury done to me. Not to curse those who curse me, but rather to bless them. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.

Not to be proud. Not to be lazy. Not to be slothful. Not to be a murmurer. Not to be a detractor.

To guard my tongue against wicked speech. To avoid much speaking. To avoid idle talk. To read only what is good to read. To look at only what is good to see. To pray often. To obey my superiors in all things rightful. Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness.

To fulfill the commandments of God by good works. To hate no one. Not to be jealous or envious of anyone. Not to love strife. Not to love pride. To honour the aged. To pray for my enemies. To make peace after a quarrel, before the setting of the sun. Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy. Amen.”

To Saint Benedict I now plead and pray: Dear St Benedict please recommend my Friend Marko Franovic, an Australian Croat – a dedicated benefactor to multitudes in need in Croatia, in Australia and worldwide – to Jesus, who during His ministry on Earth showed His power and caring by healing people of all ages and stations of life from physical, mental, and spiritual ailments. Be present, dear Jesus, now to people who need Your loving touch because of COVID-19. May they feel Your power of healing through the care of doctors and nurses. May Your miracle of healing touch my friend Marko.

Ina Vukic

 

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