ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — A Croatian court on Friday annulled a 1946 verdict against a Catholic cardinal convicted by the former communist authorities of collaborating with the pro-Nazi puppet regime during World War II. The ruling drew an angry response in neighboring Serbia, which accused Croatia of endorsing fascism.
The Zagreb Country Court overturned the treason conviction against Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison and forced labor, the official HINA news agency reported.
Judge Ivan Trudic ruled that the post-WWII verdict "gravely violated" basic legal rules, including the right to a fair trial, HINA said. Trudic described the proceedings as a "staged political process."
Stepinac is considered a hero by many Croats for his resistance to communism and his refusal to separate the Croatian church from the Vatican. But Serbs and Jews accuse Stepinac of sympathizing with the Ustasha authorities that orchestrated the killings of tens of thousands in Croatian concentration camps.
Serbian officials said the ruling on Stepinac amounted to rehabilitation of the Ustasha regime.
"How is this possible in the European Union, which was built on the victory against fascism?" Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic asked. "This is not just a Serb-Croat issue, this is a global and European problem."
Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic also accused Croatia of "trying to cover the pits in which the Ustashas buried the (killed) Serbs."
The Serbian Orthodox Church has protested a bid by the Catholic Church to declare Stepinac a saint.
Croatia, a staunchly Catholic country, became part of the communist-run Yugoslav federation after WWII. Yugoslavia broke up in a series of ethnic conflicts in the 1990s pitting its former republics against each other.
Croatia joined the European Union in 2013.