Nazi war crimes suspect Andrija Artukovic, charged with ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs and gypsies in Croatia during World War II, was spirited out of the United States to Yugoslavia yesterday after losing a final midnight appeal to Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist.
U.S. marshals late Tuesday afternoon put into action a plan to get Artukovic out of the country quickly, first moving him from a prison near Los Angeles to a New York-bound flight immediately after he lost an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Artukovic arrived at Kennedy International Airport at 12:10 a.m., minutes after Rehnquist refused to delay an extradition order. He was immediately transferred to a Yugoslav Air Lines plane, which took off about 1 a.m.
The airline later said the flight, which had been scheduled to depart at 6 p.m., was delayed because of "weather," but Stephen Boyle, chief of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Marshals Service, said, "Our people had reason to believe the airplane would be waiting for us."
The overnight extradition ended a three-decade U.S. legal battle, which had touched on numerous points including whether the 86-year-old Artukovic was mentally able to defend himself. It began a new round of legal troubles for the man known as the "Butcher of the Balkans," who faces murder charges in Yugoslavia.
He was removed from the plane in Zagreb on a stretcher.
Artukovic, whose lawyers said he was suffering from blindness, senility, and heart problems, had fought his case through the federal court system since he was first ordered deported in 1953.
He had been held without bail in the hospital ward at the federal prison at Terminal Island near Los Angeles since his arrest Nov. 14, 1984, when Yugoslavia initiated extradition proceedings against him. Artukovic was minister of the interior and justice in the puppet government installed by the Nazis in Croatia, now part of Yugoslavia.
Michael Wolf, deputy director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, the unit that investigates suspected Nazi war criminals, described Artukovic as probably "the highest-ranking Nazi war criminal in the United States."
Wolf said the decision to begin the Artukovic journey was made late Tuesday afternoon after the 9th Circuit Court refused to delay or overturn an extradition order.
With Artukovic in the air on his coast-to-coast flight, his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, but Rehnquist at midnight refused to block the extradition.
Wolf said Artukovic is the first Nazi war crimes suspect to be extradited since the Office of Special Investigations was set up in 1979. The only other such suspect to be extradited since the war was Hermine Braunsteiner, a camp guard who was deported in 1973 and tried in West Germany, where she is serving a life sentence.
Nine other suspected Nazis have left the country as a result of proceedings by the Office of Special Investigations. Most have left voluntarily as their appeals have run out.
Artukovic had entered the United States in 1948 using an alias and under a temporary visitor's visa.
Allan A. Ryan Jr., former head of the Office of Special Investigations, said that Artukovic had been a priority case since the office opened in 1979.
Ryan said Artukovic was believed to have been responsible for the murders of 400,000 people in Croatia. "He had control over the entire secret police machinery there," Ryan said. "Serbs in Croatia, along with Jews, were tortured, raped, beaten, garroted, stabbed . . . . It was the most vicious persecution one could imagine. He was responsible for the entire machinery that did it."
Members of Artukovic's family and his lawyers have denied the war crimes allegations and claim evidence against him was fabricated by Yugoslav officials who want to punish Artukovic for being anti-communist.
Last March 1, a federal magistrate found probable cause to believe that Artukovic committed mass murders during the war, and a certificate of extraditability was issued Aug. 8. His petition for a review of that certificate was denied a week ago.
On Tuesday, Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for the 9th Circuit, said Artukovic's appeal had little chance of success, raised no serious legal question and did not justify blocking extradition.
"We note that the public interest will be served by the United States complying with a valid extradition application from Yugoslavia . . . . Such proper compliance promotes relations between the two countries and enhances efforts to establish an international rule of law and order," Pregerson wrote.