“Reasonable Doubt – Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”: Australia’s Biggest Miscarriage Of Justice

Reasonable Doubt – Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”
Book by Hamish McDonald


Interview with Hamish McDonald, author of “Reasonable Doubt – Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”

April 2019, without a shadow of a doubt, will impress upon the Australian Croatian community, indeed the whole of the Australian and world’s community as a month that brings back the memories of terrifying fears and the 1970’s utterly brutal vilification of the Croatian name (the irksome effects of which still linger to this day) propped up and devised by communist Yugoslavia secret police, but also – a month that shines a light upon hope for real justice and long, long awaited truth. The fresh release of Hamish McDonald’s new book will step into the limelight of many a gathering as the book is launched in Sydney and Canberra – in April 2019. Ahead of the book’s launch I spoke in Sydney with Hamish McDonald .

Knock, knock – it’s a hot summer night and Roger Rogerson is at the front door with a posse of Sydney’s toughest cops. Sticks of gelignite are discovered, and the family’s young men are taken off for a rough night at CIB headquarters, joined by others arrested in simultaneous raids across the city. For them, and the entire community of migrants from Croatia, it’s the start of a nightmare, ending in 15-year jail terms for terrorist conspiracy. But even during their 10-month trial, holes appeared in the police case. Later the chief crown witness confessed on TV he made up his crucial testimony.

Decades later, a chance reference drew journalist Hamish McDonald to explore this case. He discovers evidence that authorities took pains to conceal from the court: that the crown witness was an agent of the Yugoslav secret service and had been under ASIO surveillance. The book shows how an unreformed police force, inept politicians, scheming security men, and mutually back-slapping judges contributed to Australia’s biggest miscarriage of justice. It’s Sydney’s underbelly, with a dash of international intrigue and espionage,” quoted from the Back cover of Hamish McDonald’s new book “Reasonable Doubt – Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”.

Hamish McDonald
Photo:Ina Vukic

The case of “Croatian Six” has been a subject of your pursuits in investigative journalism and writing for many years. When and what has drawn you to this particular subject?

My interest was sparked by a side-reference to the case in a completely unrelated one, the 2007 inquest into the killing of five Australian TV journalists in Portuguese Timor way back in 1975. A former federal government lawyer raised it as a miscarriage of justice. I started digging, making FOI requests, reading the trial transcripts (5000 pages), trying to meet police and lawyers involved. I wrote a long piece for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2012. This led to the NSW Supreme Court commissioning a judge to see whether a full judicial review of the convictions was warranted. He said it was not. But then in 2016, the third volume of the official history of ASIO, Australia’s domestic security service, came out. Based on ASIO’s secret archives, It described the Croatian Six case as a “miscarriage of justice.” That got me to go back to the case. This book is the result.

Can you please tell me where and what paths you needed to pursue in your search for facts and truth about this case?

I re-read the transcripts of the trial and the two levels of appeal. Being able to draw on them at book length, rather than a newspaper article, meant I could form an analysis of bias in the police and judicial systems at the time that was very adverse to the six defendants. So there was a court-room drama. But the more I looked at it, the dark area was the role of Vico Virkez (the pseudonym of Vitomir Misimovic), a Bosnian Serb pretending to be a Croat and Catholic who led the police to the others and then gave evidence against them. As I discovered (with your help, Ina!) he had died in 2014, back in his home village. But in Croatia and Serbia in 2017 I was able to build up a picture of the modus operandi of the UDBa in Australia, and how it was able to manipulate Australian authorities against Croatian nationalists. Unfortunately I could not get the present Serbian security service, which is sitting on the former federal UDBa archive, to open up any records of the case. The archive of the Croatian UDBa is now open, but was sanitized before the old regime broke up. But then a request through the National Archives of Australia for access to ASIO records about the case began to yield results. They support the conclusion of the ASIO Official History.

What has left the strongest of impressions upon you as a journalist as well as an individual member of society during your research regarding this case?

Going back to the Australia of 1979 has been a time warp, not just to pre-digital technology but to social attitudes that young people today would find incredible. It was an era of now-amazing naivety about police abuses, judicial bias, and foreign interference, and also an era of ethnic stereotyping much different to the current versions. As a person, it has been getting to know some of the Croatian Six and family members over the past 12 years. They are fine people. They deserve a remedy for this injustice, even this late.

Why the book title “Reasonable Doubt – Spies, Police and the Croatian Six”?

Beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of proof to convict someone under our legal system. It comes up again and again in this narrative. Virkez has gone back on his evidence. The NSW Police were shown to be riddled with corruption and abuse at the time of the arrests. Yet throughout the court appeals and applications for judicial review, judges have clung to the confessions allegedly made by the six as clinching evidence that puts their guilt beyond doubt – even though these were unsigned in five cases, and produced by a detective unit now notorious for bashing, loading (planting evidence) and verballing (fabricating confessions). The Federal Government kept ASIO knowledge about Virkez’s role as an UDBa agent away from the jury, the defence lawyers, and the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Australia. So there are the spies – Yugoslav and Australian – and the police.

How do you think this kind of disaster in the justice system believed by many to be associated with this case was or is possible in countries like Australia?

Amid terrorism scares, normal doubts and civil liberties tend to go out the window. Police are usually floundering in political cases to find connections between activism and violence, between thought and action. They get used to building cases against suspects they “know” are guilty. Miscarriages against the perceived aliens within thus happen, from the 1894 Dreyfus case in France to the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases in 1970s England. This was our equivalent. Thanks to political rancor over ASIO – Labor saying it persecuted the Left while ignoring the extreme Right – Croatians in Australia all got tainted as Ustase holdovers. The UDBa were delighted to encourage this.

What do you hope the release of this book will achieve for the society in general?

I’d like to encourage everyone to keep threats of terrorism in proportion, and not stigmatise a whole community for the acts of a few members. After all, we’ve just seen the worst act of terror in this part of the world, at least since colonial times, carried out by someone from the Anglo-Celtic “mainstream.” We need to have far stronger systems to check intelligence agencies – the deference of judges to “national security” claims by Canberra against disclosure in this case now look ridiculous. But above all, I’d like to see it lead to pardons, apologies and compensation for the Croatian Six.

Interview by Ina Vukic

Hamish McDonald (L) Ina Vukic (C) Branko Miletic (R) in Sydney

“They discredited the whole of Croatian diaspora completely”

The Croatian Six Photo:ABC

Australia’s The Sun Herald continued its write-up February 12 on the deeply likely miscarriage of justice and cover-up by the Australian Federal officials during late 1970’s against the “Croatian Six” for terrorism.

The case is now cited by a leading American counter-terrorism expert, Professor John Schindler, of the US Naval War College, as a ”classic” agent provocateur operation run by the intelligence agency of the then communist regime in Belgrade, known as the UDBa, against exile communities seeking to dismantle the Yugoslavian federation.

Former UDBa officials involved with running the operation, or who knew directly about it, had told him it was ”one of their great successes”, Professor Schindler said. ”They succeeded in discrediting the Croatian diaspora in Australia completely.”

According to the Sun Herald article three out of six of the Croatian Six have lodged a new application for a judicial review in News South Wales, Australia.

Back in Croatia, the foreign minister Vesna Pusic has in the past year suggested that Croatia might consider withdrawing its case against Serbia for Genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if certain conditions are met by Serbia. E.g. resolve the matter of the still missing thousands and thousands of Croatian people, victims of the Serbian aggression against Croatia in the 1990’s. This, would be a terrible mistake. Croatians throughout the world have suffered too long from the Serb-led attacks, campaigns of lies and desctructions and only a firm hand via court/legal actions can clear the negative stigma and questions against the Croatian people that will be left if Croatia withdraws its case in the ICJ.

While individuals on any side, who have committed crimes, need to be punished, it is cases such as the one before the ICJ, the one against Croatian Six, etc, that actually have blanket effects of either branding a whole nation with negative stigma or peeling off that stigma so that millions of innocent individuals who feel the stigma because they love Croatia could beathe with some deserved relief. Ina Vukic, Prof.(Zgb); B.A.,M.A.Ps. (Syd)

Australian “Croatian Six” framed and Croatians paid dearly for Serb-dominated anti-Croatian branding

The Croatian Six illustration by Simon Bosch

There’s no doubt that Yugoslav Communists/antifascists, led by Josip Broz Tito set out to blacken all people who called themselves Croatians after WWII. Of course, the fact that a part of the Croatian nation (members of Ustashi regime) had collaborated with Nazi Germany during the war, took active roles in the Holocaust, made things very easy for the Serb-dominated Yugoslav secret police, army, government.

The hot iron used to brand all Croatians as terrorists, killers … was the Communist propaganda, overt and covert, that pointed to Croatia as the only state in the Former Yugoslavia that actively participated in the Holocaust.

The fact that 94% of Serbian Jews had been exterminated in Serbia by mid-1942 had entered the historical records (written by the Communists and the Allies) as murderous deeds perpetrated in Serbia by the occupying Nazi-Germany forces and not Serbs. Many, it seems, thought nothing of the fact that the government of Milan Nedic and the Serbian Orthdox church during WWII were only too eager and quick to collaborate with the Nazis and help bring the Serbian Jews to the slaughter.

All Croatians that fled Communist Yugoslavia after WWII, if not murdered, were branded extremists, terrorists and fascists. The fact that majority had nothing to do with the Ustashi regime or politics during WWII was unimportant. Croatians, wherever they lived, had to be destroyed for their love of Croatia had posed a threat to Communist Yugoslavia which worked tirelessly and dirty at creating a world image of a regime of “brotherhood and unity”; that Communism was the solution for peace and prosperity.

The Sydney Morning Herald has February 11 published an article “Framed: the untold story about the Croatian Six”, by Hamish McDonald.

The Herald investigation strengthens suspicions that the Croatian Six, all young tradesmen and Australian citizens of Croatian birth – were framed for terrorism, each spending up to a decade in prison. Their trial and subsequent convictions may represent one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Australian history.

Six Australian-Croatians were accused of terrorism and sentenced to 15 years, each, in late 1970’s, serving 10. Vitomir Virkez (i.e. Vitomir Misimovic) became the Crown witness at the trial against the Croatian Six (Max Bebic, Vic Brajkovic, Tony Zvirotic, Joe Kokotovic and his brother Ilija Kokotovic, and Mile Nekic).

The bombshell that a Serb national (Vitomir Misimovic), posing as a Croatian, infiltrated into the Croatian Community and informed Yugoslav diplomats (UDBA) of activities of alleged terrorist acts by Croatians was initially revealed by the Australian ABC Television journalist Chris Masters in 1981.

Yugoslav UDBA’s (secret police) role in the persecution of the Croatian Six in Australia was withheld at the trial by Australian officials. Former Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Fraser said that had the court known the information about UDBA’s involvement the verdict of the Croatian Six would have been not guilty.

Attempts to mount a judicial review of the case of the Croatian Six had failed in early 1990’s. One wonders how much of such a dismissal of the request for judicial review in Australia had to do with the fact that Serbs had waged a war in Croatia and had at that time occupied one third of it? Politics can get nasty and find its ways in all walks of life; often oblivious of justice.

This is just one of many examples how the Serb-led Communist Yugoslavia secret police (UDBA) worked around the world in their task of blackening the Croatian communities as extremists, terrorists. The full story “Framed” can be purchased via amazon.com for a mere US$1.99. It promises to offer an eye-opening read into the ways whole nations can be branded with a heavy stigma that future generations could spend a century, if not more, in trying to remove. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

A quote to relate: “It may be” said Cadfael, “that our justice sees as in a mirror image, left where right should be, evil reflected back as good, good as evil, your angel as her devil. But God’s justice, if it makes no haste, makes no mistakes.” (Ellis Peters, 1913 – 1995, The Potter’s Field)

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