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COURTSIDE: Tuta and Stela Trial

Protected witnesses deny prisoners were maltreated and used as "human shields" by defendant's unit.
By Mirna Jancic

Defence witnesses in the case of Vinko "Stela" Martinovic last week provided evidence that questions the prosecution's evidence of his alleged crime, and spoke of his "positive attitude" towards Muslims.


Addressing the courtroom via video-link, Dr Josip Skavic disputed an earlier post-mortem identification of one of Stela's alleged victims, Nenad Harmandzic.


Stela is charged with responsibility for the beating and murder of Harmandzic, who was taken from the Croat-held Heliodrom camp for Muslims and brought to the defendant's military base.


The indictment claims Stela generally mistreated Heliodrom's inmates and frequently brought them to his unit's base to be used as forced labour or as live shields in battle, as a result of which a number were wounded or killed. Harmadzic's remains were subsequently discovered and identified, but the defence disputes these findings.


Dr Skavic insisted that details supplied by the victim's family - specifically concerning the man's height - did not match the remains, and he disputed the basis on which the body was identified.


The prosecution maintains that Harmandzic's son had identified objects found on the body as belonging to his father, while the height recorded by forensic experts was within an acceptable range to correspond with that of the victim.


However, a member of Stela's unit testified that Martinovic had a "positive attitude" towards Muslims and never abused them. The protected witness MO agreed, adding that, as a Muslim who had known Stela from his school days, he should know.


The witness, who had been bullied while serving in a Croat battalion, sought refuge in Stela's unit in September 1993, where he was paid a wage and given arms kept in the defendant's base.


MO claims that the Heliodrom inmates he encountered at the base were well fed and fairly treated. He denied that they were forced to dig trenches around the front line, and claimed they were normally seen repairing cars.


Another protected witness known as NI - a Croat and a member of the defendant's unit - told the court some Muslims burned his house a few days before the Muslim-Croat conflict erupted in May 1993.


During the six months he spent in Stela's unit, it grew from 30 to some 80 men. NI said the company was not subordinated to that of Stela's co-accused Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic, as the indictment claims, but was part of the Mostar city defense.


He challenged the indictment's claims that, during the unit's attack on Bosnian positions in Mostar on September 17, 1993, Stela had ordered Muslim prisoners to accompany a Croat tank as a human shield, with wooden guns in their hands.


NI insisted that the tank was in his line of sight for most of the day, and that there were no prisoners, and no people at all, near it at any time. The witness described the notion of using prisoners as a human shield as "ridiculous", as they would have offered no protection for the vehicle and would have been killed instantly in the event of an attack.


However, the indictment maintains that the "live shields" were intended to provoke enemy fire, betraying their positions for the tank to shoot at.


The witness said the unit had got a bad name for the wrong reasons. He recalled how several men unknown to the unit had put stockings on their heads and stolen cars. They called each other "Stelici", after Stela's unit, which is why people complained about the defendant. NI said Stela eventually found the culprits and beat them up.


The prosecution team expressed concern over the large number of protected witnesses called during this trial, and presiding judge Liu Daqun expressed the trial chamber's agreement with this. It was in everyone's interest, especially the defendants', for trials to be held in open sessions, the judge said.


Defence counsel Zelimir Par expressed his "sadness" that the issue was being treated in this manner, stating that at the beginning of the trial, the prosecution and defence had reached a "gentlemen's agreement" not to raise the subject.


The sensitive nature of the testimonies required such protective measures, he said, adding that witnesses' identities had been leaked on several occasions.


Mirna Jancic is an IWPR assistant editor