When Terrorism … Isn’t

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 15 April 2019

In February 1979, police in south-eastern Australia arrested six people. The suspects were members of the Croatian nationalist scene that agitated against Communist Jugoslavija and they had planned to commit a series of attacks against symbols of Marshal Tito’s regime that could have killed hundreds of Australians. Except they hadn’t, as Hamish McDonald, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, shows in Framed (2012). Despite the “Croatian Six” being convicted for terrorism and spending a decade in prison, the reality of what had happened was nearly the exact opposite—and at least some powerful people in the Australian government knew or suspected as much from the get-go.

THE CASE

The case begins with Vico Virkez, a construction worker on the Wallerawang power station, going to the police station in Lithgow, a small town eighty miles west (inland) from Sydney on 8 February 1979.

Virkez told police he was part of a conspiracy to plant over-100 pounds of explosive at six targets around Sydney. The most prominent target was the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, which could seat 1,600 people. The theatre was hosting a performance by a visiting Jugoslav song-and-dance troupe. “[T]ravel agencies, a Yugoslav club in Cabramatta, and the city’s main water pipeline from the Warragamba Dam” were additional targets. Virkez was told to maintain his part in the operation.

The Lithgow police then telephoned the headquarters of the New South Wales (NSW) police in Sydney and Special Branch got involved, too. Surveillance confirmed that Maksim “Max” Bebić, identified by Virkez as a co-conspirator, was a house guest of Virkez’s. Virkez, Bebić, and Stepan Topic (soon released without charge) were arrested that evening at the Macauley Street house.

McDonald writes:

The detectives took Bebić inside the house, and went to look in the car, finding two gelignite bombs in the boot and two on the back seat under a blanket, each with about 12.5 kilos (25 lb) of explosives. In the glove box were detonators, alarm clocks and batteries. …

Later that day, Friday February 8, Bebić guided the police out to a site in the bush outside Lithgow at Hassan’s Walls where he showed them a buried garbage tin containing 51 electric detonators, six cartridges of gelignite, [and] a roll of fuse. Bebić showed the police where he and Virkez … had experimented with explosions.

Bebić then gave the names of five comrades also involved in the plot.

Police went to the home of Vrjkoslav “Vic” Brajković, a concreter, who lived on Restwell Street near Fairfield. Brajković and his brother-in-law, Jacov Hudlin, were arrested, found with “two half-sticks of gelignite, some detonators, and some flares. A search of the room turned up an alarm clock with a hole drilled in the glass face and big hand removed, and two batteries soldered together”, McDonald notes. “Yes, I make bomb,” Brajković was noted as saying.

Simultaneously in Sydney, on Livingstone Street in Burwood, police raided the home of the Kokotović family. At the home, McDonald explains, were “the two elderly parents, their sons Joseph and Ilija, Joseph’s wife Lydia and their three-year-old daughter, and daughter Christine Nekić, whose separated husband Mile Nekić frequently visited.” Joe Kokotović threatened to stab police with scissors, and was quickly subdued and arrested. Ilija Kokotović was found in the attic with Mile Nekić and “two half-sticks of gelignite, four detonators, and five relay connectors”, which were just lying on the desk. Joe confessed to everything, implicating the others, though refused to sign the written confession.

And finally, at a third location in Sydney, on Chandos Street in Ashfield, Ante Zvirotić, also a tradesman, was rounded up after police watched him return home. Zvirotić was found in possession of a pistol, two half-sticks of gelignite, and a detonator. He soon confessed all.

Virkez was deported in late 1980 and in February 1981, after probably the longest trial in Australia’s history, the other six men were each sentenced to fifteen years in prison, and their appeal was defeated in October 1982. They would all be released in 1991 after serving less than their full sentences because of their good behaviour.

The Croatian Six [image source]

BACKGROUND

The above is what was not only the popular conception of what had happened; it is what the court ruled had happened. And the ground to believe it had been prepared.

For a start, the Croatian nationalist movement had a generally bad name because it was associated with the Ustaše, the Catholic extremists led by Ante Pavelić who had set up a regime under Nazi protection during the Second World War that even the Gestapo found excessive.

In Australia specifically, there had been a number of cases—the 1963 effort by Australian members of the Croatian Revolutionary Brotherhood (HRB) to ignite an armed uprising in Jugoslavija, the June-July 1972 PHOENIX operation by the so-called Bugojno Group of the HRB that ended with nineteen Australian “Ustašis” killed in a shootout with security forces in Bosnia, and two bomb plots in Sydney (one “successful”) from that year—that reinforced that narrative about the Croat émigré community.

The notion that the Liberal (conservative) government of the day and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had allowed Croat “fascists” to take root in the country allowed the Australian Left to grandstand as tough on national security and immigration, while downplaying the threat from the Soviet Union. The Left argued that they took all threats seriously as opposed to the Right-wing that had a one-sided focus on Soviet espionage. In Australia, as everywhere else, academia, media, and other opinion-makers are overwhelmingly of the Left, and they were an important factor in the creation of a popular opinion that was hostile to the Croat cause.

THE FLAWS IN THE NARRATIVE

The inconsistencies were visible from the beginning.

The motive for the ostensible plan made no sense. Why destroy the water system and stage a massacre at a theatre affecting mostly Australians when none of the suspects had any obvious animus against Australia? To the contrary, the six were struggling to build lives in a new homeland that by all appearances they were loyal to. The score they had to settle with the old country was something quite separate.

Then there was the physical evidence. The type of explosive that had been stolen from Wallerawang, which was supposedly the material in the hands of the conspirators, did not match the type of gelignite police discovered. Processed bombs were found in Virkez’s car and explosives were found in the bushes at his and Bebić’s house in Lithgow; this was not contested. The explosives found in Sydney, however, were not tested for fingerprints, nobody’s hands were tested for residue, and all of the Sydney detainees denied seeing any explosive material until after they were arrested. Put simply, there was no solid basis to say any of those arrested in Sydney had ever laid eyes on, let alone touched, the explosives police claimed to have found at their homes. Despite Virkez’s claim of explosives planted at the Elizabethan Theatre, nothing was found.

Then there is the clear evidence of mistreatment and coercion of the prisoners. As McDonald puts it, reading the case files at this point puts one in mind of Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, “a time warp back to police stations of the 1970s, all shaggy haircuts, lairy ties, incorrect social attitudes and rough handling of suspects”. Bebić, Brajković, Zvirotić, and Joe Kokotović say they were beaten in custody. The latter three insist that their confessions were entirely fabricated. There is no audio of their confessions, nobody had a lawyer present, and all the confessions were unsigned.

Bebić said—and says still—he was tricked into a statement that was used against him: he was given a list of names while he was in custody in Lithgow, written in Serbo-Croat, and asked to translate them into English. This handwritten translation was then used as evidence of his connection with the other supposed plotters, and to prove that the six were involved in a single conspiracy. Which leads to perhaps the most intriguing part.

Virkez said he gave the names of Bebić, Brajković, and Zvirotić. It is unclear where the names of the Kokotović brothers and Nekić came into the picture, and it is unclear—beyond a broad association in the same movement—that these two groups of three knew each other. McDonald suggests that the police manipulated Bebić into providing this list as a pretext for them to arrest some “usual suspects”.

At the trial, the defence was hopelessly outmatched. The judge was reported as needing police protection (which wasn’t true) and the courthouse was surrounded with a heavy police presence (feeding the impression of genuinely dangerous suspects on trial). Speaking in broken English and claiming police brutality when such a thing was still shocking, the six didn’t have a chance. Nonetheless, as McDonald narrates, they landed two clear blows on the prosecution case.

First, Brajković’s claim to have been assaulted by the police was vindicated: the photograph of him taken at the police station was shown to have been over-exposed to hide his bruising. Brajković’s apparent admission during the arrest—“I make bombs”—was allowed to stand, though.

Second, the prosecution demonstrated that the police had lied about a fourth raid conducted in Sydney alongside the others. At Willmot, near Mount Druitt, Joseph Stipich, a 22-year-old student, was arrested. Stipich was said by police to have kept nine detonators in the drawer of his desk in his room. But he did not have a drawer on his desk. Stipich was called as a defence witness, but the prosecution was successful in limiting the mentions of the Stipich case.

In August 1984, John Avery became the police commissioner in NSW and one of his first acts was disbanding the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) squads that had led on the Croatian Six case, calling CIB a “hotbed of corruption”. Roger Rogerson, one of the senior officials—who had led the Burwood raid—was removed from the police and later convicted for perverting the course of justice and perjury. Many major cases from the 1970s and 1980s were revisited; the Croatian Six was not one of them.

Planting guns and gelignite, it turned out, were common tactics for the CIB if they lacked evidence to convict suspects they were sure were guilty. “If anyone in these squads decided to do a job on you, you are not going to get away”, one NSW police commander tells McDonald. Not everybody on a raid had to know; indeed, it was usually left for eager and less cynical younger officers to “discover” the evidence. The practice of fabricated or partially-fabricated unsigned interviews and confessions was routine, known as “verballing”. Rogerson himself later said that the hardest part was “thinking up excuses to explain why people didn’t sign”.

Rogerson still says that evidence was not planted on the Croatian Six and that the involvement of Special Branch, i.e. people the CIB officers did not know and therefore could not trust, makes the idea of framing these men ludicrous.

THE PLOT THICKENS

Shaky as the confessions and the physical evidence, the explosives and detonators, looks at this distance, the other leg of the prosecution’s case, the testimony of Vico Virkez, is where things get truly problematic.

In a procedural sense, “it was not revealed until the week before the trial started that [Virkez, who was kept in a separate prison to the others,] would appear as a Crown witness”, McDonald explains. “Some of the defence lawyers were alarmed that his lawyer, Parramatta solicitor David Collier, had taken part in their conferences.” But that was the least of it.

Virkez was not Virkez: his real name was Vitomir Misimović. Nor was Virkez a Croat: he was an ethnic Serb and an Orthodox Christian. Virkez/Misimović had arrived in Australia in 1970, at age 19, “mingled with Croats and passed as one of them”, says McDonald.

McDonald goes on:

It emerged in evidence that a notebook kept by Virkez at Lithgow contained the telephone number of the Yugoslav consulate-general in Sydney, plus some coded writing he refused to decode. The day of the arrests, he had put his house up for sale to move to Queensland, he said. 

During the trial it became clear he wanted to return to his village and mother in Bosnia. Having left Yugoslavia before doing his military service, he had a motive for ingratiating himself with Belgrade: to avoid a three-year jail term on landing for evading national service.

Crucially, Virkez/Misimović had telephoned the Jugoslav Consulate in Sydney hours before his tip to the Lithgow police. ASIO knew about this because they intercepted the call, and they also knew that Jugoslavia’s secret police, the State Security Administration (UDBA), made up one-third or more of the “diplomats” at all Jugoslav facilities.

In March and April 1980, officials at a number of government departments heard Virkez referred to as a “low-level agent” of UDBA, McDonald reports. When the defence asked for intelligence background, they were blocked by official classification, and though they raised the possibility of Virkez being a foreign agent in court, it was done very tentatively and apologetically. The defence focused instead on Virkez’s personal unreliability and history of mental instability.

As it turned out, ASIO knew even more than this. An ASIO official visited Virkez in the Parramatta prison two weeks after his arrest. Virkez initially denied the accusation that he had been a regular informant of the Consulate “for some time”, but quickly caved: “You are right, but I have only been giving them information about things in the community. I wanted no part of this plan to blow up people. That’s why I got scared and told everybody about it.” Virkez insisted he had not been paid and had instead acted as “a patriotic Jugoslav”. It was never clear whether Virkez was in fact just a casual informant, or was an officer of UDBA. In either event, ASIO withheld the fact that Virkez was a member of Jugoslav intelligence from the courts, partly because they believed the six were dangerous extremists and more significantly because it would have involved admitting their own coverage of the Consulate.

“While in jail”, McDonald records, “Virkez relinquished his Australian citizenship, and was given a new Yugoslav passport. On December 26, 1980—while the trial was still on—Virkez was released and deported to Yugoslavia.” Virkez taking shelter in a state he was purportedly warring against was highly indicative, and all ambiguity was resolved in August 1991 when the Four Corners investigative journalist Chris Masters tracked Virkez/Misimović down in Bosnia, just as the Jugoslav Federation was dissolving. Virkez was quite blunt: he had been welcomed back and paid by the state, and he had been a member of the “Black Hand”, a Serbian movement, since his arrival in Australia. During the trial, Virkez had at one point cryptically said he was settling a “deal with the Chetniks”, a Serbian nationalist reference.

DEVELOPMENTS

In 2013, the latest effort by some of the survivors to have their convictions overturned was dismissed, much to the disappointment of the Croatian-Australian population. Within the community, the case remains a raw wound, as demonstrated when Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) host Tony Jones made an off-hand remark in July 2016, responding to the idea that Islamist terrorism represented something totally new in Australia, by saying there had been “multiple bombings by Croatian Catholic extremists” in the 1970s. There was a furious reaction and activists demanded that Jones retract and apologise.

The anger has been increased by consistent revelations about how much ASIO knew. In 1977, Jugoslavija had let Australia know that if it did not crack down on the Croat activists on its territory, it would take matters into its own hands. This warning shot should have, like all the other evidence ASIO had of UDBA activities and their own counter-intelligence failures, was kept from the courts. When the third volume of ASIO’s history was published in October 2016, it acknowledged flat-out that the Croatian Six case was a “miscarriage of justice”.

In January 2017, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released documentation showing that it, too, had been keeping tabs on the Croat émigrés in Australia. This is not, in itself, surprising: the U.S. has global intelligence capabilities and responsibilities; the Croat groups were among the most notable terrorism threats at the time; and Australia is a Five Eyes ally that was struggling with this domestic security issue. What is surprising is how unaware the CIA seems to be that these groups—including the HRB—were penetrated by Jugoslav intelligence.

UDBA AND PROVOCATION

Georgi Markov [image source]

For all of the Cold War spy thrillers, the Soviet KGB largely ceased foreign assassinations after the 1961 defection of Bohdan Stashynsky in West Germany. There were exceptions. For example, Nikita Khrushchev was so personally incensed at being outwitted diplomatically by the Shah that the KGB was ordered in 1962 to kill the Iranian monarch, and, in 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was murdered in London, though that was primarily the work of Todor Zhivkov’s secret police; the KGB provided only the weapon, the famous ricin pellet-releasing umbrella that Markov was stabbed with.

Enver Hadri [image source]

At just about the moment the KGB was getting out of the “wetwork” business, UDBA began its killing spree against the enemy émigrés, and essentially never stopped. As late as February 1990, just over a year before the first declarations of independence that disbanded Jugoslavija, UDBA is confirmed to have killed Enver Hadri, a Kosovar Albanian dissident living in Brussels. UDBA hired Serbian gangsters for the job. This interlinked underworld spies and organised crime, with deep connections to the political elite, significantly shaped—and continues to shape—the post-Communist Balkans.

In total, over the last thirty years of Jugoslavija’s existence, something approaching one-hundred Jugoslav oppositionists—some of them actual terrorists, some of them non-violent extremists, some of them harmless democrats and writers—were murdered in the West by UDBA,[1] many of them in a wilfully savage manner beyond what was usual from the Soviet Bloc even during the Stalin days. But because Jugoslavija had broken with the Soviets, and was tacitly counted among NATO’s divisions should the balloon go up, a blind-eye was turned to much of this.

Vinko Sindičić [image source]

McDonald notes that the work of the German courts after the murder of Stepjan Đureković in Munich in 1983 by two UDBA agents was the case that began to pry open the dark history of what UDBA had done in Europe—and America. Helping the Germans on this matter was Vinko Sindičić, an accomplished UDBA officer and assassin, who had come to attention for his attempt to murder Nikola Štedul, a Croatian nationalist living with his wife in Scotland. Štedul had previously resided in Melbourne and held Australian citizenship.

Sindičić had been in Australia in 1978 and had been tasked with blackening the name of the Croat nationalists, considered by Belgrade the most serious challenge among the “sixth column”. Sasha Uzunov, a Macedonian-Australian documentary journalist, has put together the evidence that Sindičić led the set-up of the Croatian Six, working with the main UDBA official in Australia, Georgi Travkovski.

All of the Croatian émigré organisations, especially by the late 1970s, were badly infiltrated by UDBA and some of them, like HRB, were so badly compromised that they were effectively under the control of the Jugoslav secret police. This meant the Jugoslav regime was able to neutralise the Croatian nationalist movement: under surveillance, the Croats were unable to surprise Belgrade; anybody who was judged to be too much trouble was eliminated; and UDBA agents in Croat colours behaved in a violent and extremist manner that brought political discredit on the movement in the West.

For UDBA, the Croatian Six is probably its crowning achievement, albeit abetted by the misconduct of the local police. The furore surrounding the case created a political atmosphere Down Under that ruined the Croat cause entirely thereafter, and had ASIO do the Jugoslavs’ work for them in suppressing it. UDBA repeated the Sydney operation with the Croatian National Resistance (OTPOR) a couple of years later. The New York-based OTPOR was another group so heavily infiltrated it’s not clear it had any autonomy of its own.

Taking control of your enemies and having them defeat themselves is called “provocation” in intelligence terms. UDBA did not invent provocation—that distinction in a modern sense goes to the Tsarist secret police, the Okhranka, who handed it on to the KGB, which used such tactics to take apart the White Guards, the anti-Bolshevik resistance, when it was based in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Nor were the UDBA the last to use it. The Russians themselves, in Chechnya and elsewhere, have continued using provocation since the end of the Cold War, and KGB-trained regimes in Algeria and Syria have made a similar success of matters. But it has to be said the UDBA set a very high standard.

 

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

 

Notes

[1] UPDATE: According to an estimate by Večernji List, a Croatian newspaper, in June 2013, UDBA assassinated sixty-nine Croatian oppositionists among the diaspora population between 1946 and 1990. In terms of the major wave of UDBA “black actions”, from the late 1950s/early 1960s until 1990, UDBA attempted over-one-hundred assassinations abroad and succeeded in killing at least eighty people, some Serbs and Albanians but about three-quarters of them Croats—all in Western countries with which Belgrade had friendly relations.

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