A man's fear of being deported back to Yugoslavia to either be detained as a deserter or forced to fight on the front lines of a bloody civil war drove his escape from a New South Wales jail almost 30 years ago, an Australian court has been told.
Darko Desic managed to give police and authorities the slip for almost 30 years after the daring escape in 1992 from Grafton prison, where he was serving a 3½ year term for marijuana supply.
After years living a quiet life on Sydney's northern beaches, last month the 64-year-old handed himself in to Dee Why police station and confessed to being on the run.
The greying Desic on Thursday appeared in court on video link from Grafton's Clarence Correctional Centre to be sentenced for the prison escape.
Desic had become homeless after working cash jobs around the area and chose prison for "a roof and a meal", his lawyer Paul McGirr told Central Local Court.
"He's gone back into custody on the original sentence he was serving, which means he will be due for release next year," he said.
"However, we are seeking clemency from the Attorney-General and the Governor-General … that's in the process now."
Desic has pleaded guilty to escaping from lawful custody and faces a maximum 10-year sentence under laws in place at the time of the breakout.
McGirr told the court his client was now a "loved and respected" member of the community, who had rallied behind him in the form of a A$30,000 fundraiser.
Desic had faced the prospect of being sent back to what was then Yugoslavia, where there was "almost a genocide" in his hometown, the court was told.
"In respect to the background of why he did what he did [the escape] … he had been put in a position where he was going to be deported back to a country which today no longer exists," McGirr said.
"And be placed into custody for being a deserter or either be put on the front lines of the Balkan War."
He had never come to the attention of police since his escape and had lived with the threat of a "knock at the door" and being thrown back in prison for the last three decades, McGirr said.
Due to his fugitive status, Desic had never had a Medicare card and was even forced to remove his own teeth, the court was told.
Desic faced charges laid on outdated legislation McGirr said as he urged magistrate Jennifer Atkinson to take into account modern law principles.
"For instance, you can't sentence him to 100 days hard labour which might have been available back then," he said.
McGirr said the community's support for Desic showed attitudes towards offences for marijuana supply had changed and "certainly indicates he's got runs on the board".
"For the first time in 30 years he would actually be a burden on the community in relation to the taxpayer," he said.
"He still has the attitude that he did the wrong thing and would be prepared to serve [his sentence] if that were deemed to be appropriate."
Police prosecutor Scott Williams, however, argued that despite a sense of "Australian larrikinism" being invoked in this case, the court had to punish Desic according to law.
"Regardless of the fact this was in 1992, Mr Desic has been at large until now," he said. "Really he has been in the commission of the offence that whole period."
Atkinson will hand down her judgment on Thursday afternoon.