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Countries Vie for Vukovar Case

Chief prosecutor asks for sensitive case to be transferred to local court – but does not specify whether Serbia or Croatia should host the trial.

Hague tribunal prosecutors this week asked the court to transfer the case of the co-called “Vukovar Three” to local courts in either Serbia or Croatia.

Both the Croatian and the Serbian governments immediately expressed their desire for the case be transferred to them - reinforcing concerns that the tribunal’s ultimate decision may damage years of painstaking diplomacy between the formerly warring nations and cause serious political tension.

Three former Yugoslav army officers – Miroslav Radic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Mile Mrksic – are charged with the murder of 264 Croats and other non-Serbs who took refuge in Vukovar town hospital when it fell to Serb forces in November 1991.

After being taken prisoner by the army, the victims were sent by buses to the nearby Ovcara farm and executed there by members of various Serb territorial defence units and paramilitary groups. The victims included hospital staff, patients and prisoners of war.

The trio are accused of overseeing the separation and transportation of the victims with the knowledge - or at least a reasonable suspicion - of what was in store for them. All three have entered “not guilty” pleas to the charges.

Under Rule 11 bis of the tribunal’s statute, low- and mid-ranking cases - such as that of the Vukovar Three - can be transferred to local war crimes courts under certain conditions, as part of the Hague court’s completion strategy which envisages it completing all trials in 2008 and closing its doors two years later.

In her request for referral, Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said that she considered the arguments for referring the case to Croatia or Serbia to be “evenly balanced”.

The prosecutor argued that as “justice should be rendered as close as possible to the victims”, the choice of Croatia – where the deaths took place - would be justified. She also noted that the Croatian judiciary was capable of offering a fair trial to the accused – one of the main conditions for transferral.

On the other hand, the three accused were either arrested or surrendered on Serbian territory - which allows Belgrade to come in consideration for receiving the case.

Del Ponte pointed out that Serbian prosecutors in the newly established war crimes panel at the Belgrade district court are already hosting the trial of the alleged direct perpetrators of the Ovcara massacre.

Therefore, the referral of the Vukovar Three could support the principle of trying a group of indictees accused of involvement in the same crime before the same court, Del Ponte said, adding that she was “confident” the Belgrade court would act within internationally recognised standards of justice, should it be given the case.

Hague judges will now carefully weigh the arguments for both options and make their own ruling. However, this process takes time. The hearing on the first referral to a Balkan court - that of Croatian generals Mirko Norac and Rahim Ademi - is expected to take place next week, roughly six months after prosecutors first applied for it.

On hearing of Del Ponte’s application for transferral, the justice ministries of both Serbia and Croatia immediately rushed to claim the case.

In a telephone interview with IWPR, Croatian justice minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt said her country considered the Vukovar hospital killings to be “the most serious crime that was ever committed on Croatian territory”, and would thus “offer absolutely all needed arguments for Croatia to get the case”. But she conceded that the final decision rested with the Hague’s judges.

Her Serbian counterpart Zoran Stojkovic was far more outspoken, telling the local media he had “no doubts that the [Vukovar] case would be referred to [Serbian] judiciary”.

He warned that referring the case to Croatia could impede the Belgrade authorities’ already poor cooperation with the United Nations court, as it would have effectively forced the government to break its own laws. Under current legislation, citizens are not allowed to be extradited for trial in foreign jurisdictions, but the Serbian government had interpreted this as allowing them to hand over suspects to a non-state UN body such as a tribunal.

The strength and the speed of both reactions is an indication of the political importance that both countries seem to attach to the case. One international observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the case had the potential to stoke simmering animosity between the two countries.

Both countries have been criticised for their treatment of the war crimes issue in the past.

The Croatian government has consistently failed to deliver indicted general Ante Gotovina to the tribunal – a failure that recently stalled the country’s accession negotiations with the European Union.

In recent years, the Croatian judiciary has been criticised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe for its apparent bias against Serbs accused of war crimes against ethnic Croatians.

However, this reputation has been improved by the appointment of more skilled and impartial judges to war crimes trials, and the supreme court’s decision to overthrow several dubious or apparently unfair cases.

Ivo Jospivic, a leading Croatian legal expert specialising in cooperation with the tribunal, told IWPR that the country’s justice system was more than ready to take on a case of the size and complexity of the Vukovar Three.

These views were echoed by the tribunal chief prosecutor this week, when she stressed that the Croatian authorities had given assurances that the trio would have a fair trial, and that the OSCE would continue to monitor war crimes proceedings in the country as an additional assurance.

The Serbian judiciary is still being criticised for seemingly shying away from prosecuting high-ranking war crimes perpetrators even as the government insists on the importance of the domestic war crimes trials.

Serbia is still believed to be home to just under as 20 fugitive indictees. Two high-profile war crimes cases concerning incidents committed in Kosovo and on the border of Bosnia were recently overturned, triggering further doubts about Serbia’s readiness to face its past.

But many observers believe that the ongoing trial against the alleged Ovarca killers is proof enough of Serbia’s readiness to handle the case of the three Yugoslav army officers who are accused of ordering the massacre.

In her application for referral, Del Ponte agreed that her Belgrade colleagues could handle the case “according to internationally recognised standards of justice”.

Local and international observers in Belgrade agreed that the Ovcara trial in Belgrade is being conducted professionally.

Some warned that the prosecution’s initial reluctance to question the witnesses and accused on any subject that might have implicated any Yugoslav army officers in the crime indicates that there are still risks in trying the Vukovar Three in Belgrade.

One international observer told IWPR, “The trial against the Vukovar Three would be different [from Ovcara trial] because of the accused’s profile.

“We are talking about [JNA] officers, who [are perceived as] symbolising the former Yugoslav army, which still enjoys respect in some layers of society.”

Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, which documents Serbian war crimes, issued a written statement this week warning that prosecutors still need to “remove all traces of doubt that they are participating in the political task to protect the image of Yugoslav army … and protect its officers from criminal responsibility”.

According to the Croatian press agency, HINA, some relatives of the Ovcara victims perceived the Belgrade trial as a “farce” – but not due to any bias on behalf of the judges or lawyers, but rather due what they see as dishonesty on the part of many witnesses.

In spite of all the misgivings, some observers argue that allowing Serbia to try the men could actually have a beneficial effect on the whole region.

“Trying the accused of war crimes in their own country is the best way to send the future generations a message about what happened,” one international observer told IWPR.

The usually critical HLC seemed to agree this time. “If guarantees are offered that justice will be done, the victims would have greater satisfaction [if the trials are held in Belgrade],” a spokesperson said.

“If the Serbian court can deliver a verdict that the victims can see as just, this would be a step towards reconciliation.

“[But the opposite] would be a sign that war crime prosecutors won’t be able to handle the other crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people.”

Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague. Goran Jungvirth in Zagreb and Daniel Sunter in Belgrade also contributed to this report.

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