COURTSIDE: Visegrad Trial

Zagreb psychiatrist undermines key plank of Vasiljevic defence strategy

COURTSIDE: Visegrad Trial

Zagreb psychiatrist undermines key plank of Vasiljevic defence strategy

Saturday, 19 January, 2002

The duel between prosecution and defence forensic experts in the trial of Mitar Vasiljevic continued last week with the testimony of Dr Vera Folnegovic Smalc, an expert in forensic psychiatry in Zagreb, who examined the accused at the prosecution's request early this year at the detention unit in Scheveningen.

Vasiljevic is accused of crimes committed against Bosniak civilians in Visegrad, eastern Bosnia, in May and June 1992, including the execution of seven Bosniak civilians on June 7, 1992 and the burning alive of 65 civilians in a house in Pionirska street on June 14.

The survivors of the torching of Pionirska street have testified before the court about the participation of the defendant in the crime.

His defence team, however, assert he was in hospital in Uzice at the time, with a broken leg. As a "reserve", in case his alibi fails, they additionally assert that he was suffering from a mental disorder at the time in question, so that even if he had been present, he would have had little or no responsibility for his actions.

The Zagreb psychiatrist, however, concluded that the accused showed no sign of psychotic disorders at the time of Visegrad crimes and that any symptoms of such disorders related only to the period after he arrived in Uzice hospital in July 1992.

On the basis of a conversation with the accused and his medical file, Dr Folnegovic said Vasiljevic had probably suffered from chronic alcoholism since 1973 and that the symptoms Vasiljevic displayed at Uzice were delirium tremens, or "alcoholic psychosis", rather than mental illness.

Dr Folnegovic said that during her conversation with the accused, he did not utter "one single sentence which would indicate a psychotic disorder at that time".

Her findings differed drastically from the last week's testimony by defence forensic expert, the Belgrade psychiatrist Dr Zorka Lopicic, who said she believed Vasiljevic had been psychotic at the critical time. She said he had experienced "significantly diminished accountability" for his actions and had later been "completely unaccountable" for them.

Both experts agreed the history of psychological illnesses in his family was important. But Dr Folnegovic insisted Vasiljevic had "skipped" this inheritance, so that any psychological problems arose from enforced abstinence from alcohol and the trauma of breaking his leg.

The question of Vasiljevic's accountability is growing in importance as his alibi comes under closer scrutiny. Last week, the judges allowed the prosecution to reopen the case and hear a witness who claims she saw Vasiljevic in Visegrad on 22 June 1992, eight days after he allegedly broke his leg and was hospitalised.

The witness said she saw Vasiljevic drawing up a list of refugees at a Visegrad primary school as a "representative of the Red Cross". Survivors of the Pionirska street inferno claim Vasiljevic presented himself in such a way on June 14 when he directed them to an abandoned house there. The witness claimed she had known Vasiljevic for years and "knows him like she knows herself," so she could not be mistaken.

The defence, however, maintain she was indeed mistaken and that it would prove "Vasiljevic's double" existed in the town. The trial continues.

Vjera Bogati is an IWPR special correspondent at The Hague and a journalist with SENSE News Agency.

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