It’s one of the best known exchanges in the history of Australian cinema. In the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding, the character Bill Heslop (played by Bill Hunter) is having an affair with Deidre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson). A planned assignation at the Chinese restaurant has a seemingly surprised Chambers declaring: “Bill!” Whereupon Bill replies: “Deidre Chambers – what a coincidence.”

There are, however, real coincidences. It so happens that the National Archives of Australia recently released a file of 252 documents relating to the convictions of six Croatian-Australians.

The men – Maksimilian Bebic, Mile Nekic, Vjekoslav Brajkovic, Ilija Kokotovic, Joseph Kokotovic and Anton Zvirotic – were convicted concerning a number of offences involving making and stealing explosives. After deliberating for around 70 hours, a jury in NSW brought down a guilty verdict on February 9, 1981, for what became called the Croatian Six.

The jury was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had conspired to bomb two travel agencies in Sydney run by Serbian-Australians, a theatre in the Sydney suburb of Newtown along with Sydney’s water supply.

There have been doubts about this verdict extending back decades. At the time, Croatia was part of the federation of Yugoslavia, the largest entity of which was Serbia. Yugoslavia was a brutal communist dictatorship essentially controlled by the Communist Party of Serbia, led by Josip Broz Tito.

There is no doubt that many Croatian-Australians in the 1960s and ’70s were intent on overthrowing Tito’s regime. Some even entered Yugoslavia to engage in civil war against Tito’s Belgrade-based regime.

However, there was concern in Australia that bomb attacks on or near Yugoslavia consulates in Melbourne and Sydney were the work of Tito’s secret police aimed at discrediting his Croatian enemies in Australia. In other words, what are called false-flag attacks.

Suspicion was raised because the bombings of Yugoslav properties in Australia involved little damage and few casualties but caused considerable reputational damage to the Australian-Croatian community.

At the time the Croats were seen as anti-communists and Catholic. The left in Australia, led by Labor Party left-wing activists Lionel Murphy and Jim Cairns, disapproved of anti-communists.

Moreover, half a century ago there was still a presence in Australia of what historian Paul Collins in 2017 called “the unconscious elements of anti-Cath­olicism that has been the default position of Anglo-Australian culture since the 19th century”.

In 2019, former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Hamish McDonald’s book Reasonable Doubt: Spies, Police and the Croatian Six was released by Doosra Media. It does not make for easy reading but it is one of the most important works published in Australia this century.

Reasonable Doubt begins with the initial raids on members of the Croatian Six in February 1979. The raids were led by NSW Police detective-sergeant Roger Rogerson, who currently is serving a term of life imprisonment for murder.

As it turned out, there was scant evidence to support the charges laid by NSW Police. In the event, the accused were convicted on the basis of what the prosecution said were admissions.

Three of the six refused to do a signed interview and police presented records of what allegedly had been said.

There was one typed statement that was unsigned and one man signed a statement but claimed he did so after being assaulted. The statement of the sixth man was ruled inadmissable by the trial judge, who was not convinced it was voluntary – his body was found to be bruised.

In Reasonable Doubt, McDonald makes a convincing case that the trial judge, Allan Victor Maxwell, was hostile to the accused during the trial and in his address to the jury.

However, the verdict was upheld by the NSW Court of Appeal and the High Court of Australia declined to grant leave to appeal. Before the publication of Reasonable Doubt, there had been several applications in the early 1990s to the NSW government to inquire into the safety of the convictions.

Then in 2012 the Supreme Court appointed Acting Judge Graham Barr to reconsider the case – he dismissed the application. Now another report is being undertaken by a NSW Supreme Court judge who will hear submissions from the applicants’ legal representatives along with the Crown advocate. This is currently under way.

And here’s the coincidence. In writing Reasonable Doubt, McDonald got access to some documents on the case prepared by ASIO. However, in recent days, the NAA released ASIO’s detailed files on the case – which include one crucial document.

This was reported in The Australian this week by Jacquelin Magnay (Wednesday) and Stephen Rice (Thursday).

Apart from dubious confessions, the only other substantive evidence against the Croatian Six was the testimony of police informer Vico Virkez, who claimed to be Croatian.

Ian Cunliffe, a senior adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in February 1981, expressed concern that the prosecutor in the Croatian Six case told the jury “there is not a skerrick of evidence that Virkez is a foreign agent”. Cunliffe wrote that this was false – ASIO knew he was an agent of Tito’s secret police. Cunliffe was overruled by his senior officer, JD Enfield.

As early as August 1991, Chris Masters interviewed Virkez in Yugoslavia. Masters reported that Virkez told him that he was, in fact, Serbian and had reported to the Yugoslav regime in the ’70s. Masters also said Virkez claimed to have been coached by NSW Police with respect to his evidence against the Croatian Six.

Alas, the authorities in Sydney and Canberra took little notice of this report.

In his official history of ASIO, The Protest Years, published in 2016, John Blaxland came to a similar view to that proclaimed by some Australian anti-communists decades earlier – namely, that the terrorism that took place in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s was conducted by Serbian communist false-flag operatives.

On available evidence, enhanced by the release of ASIO’s files, the Croatian Six were improperly convicted – an injustice that has done enormous harm to Croatian-Australians over the years and that remains unresolved today.