Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croat Troops' Testimony Challenged

Expert witness suggests soldiers’ account of alleged attempt to assassinate Croat politician was contradictory.
By Goran Jungvirth
A Serb civilian gunned down by Croatian troops did not appear to be trying to assassinate defendant Branimir Glavas as the soldiers claimed, an expert witness told a Zagreb court this week.



The Croatian politician is on trial in the Croatian capital with six co-defendants, who together are accused of war crimes against Serb civilians in 1991.



Forensic specialist Ladislav Bece, who investigated the death of Croatian Serb Cedomir Vuckovic, said that the Serb appeared to be running away from Glavas’s headquarters when he was gunned down by soldiers in September 1991.



His expert testimony – in which he said Vuckovic died from battery acid poisoning rather than gun shot wounds – contradicted the accounts of Croatian troops who reportedly said they shot Vuckovic as he ran towards the headquarters in an apparent bid to kill Glavas.



Prosecutors say the seven defendants in the case are responsible for the torture of several civilians, including Vuckovic, in a garage in the town of Osijek, in eastern Croatia. Other civilians were shot and thrown into the River Drava, their mouths bound with gaffer tape, according to the indictment.



This week, Bece told judges what happened once he appeared on the scene where Vuckovic was shot.



He said that he and police officers had arrived at Glavas’s headquarters in Osijek after being informed of the shooting. An investigative judge was already present, along with a number of Croatian soldiers.



“One of the [soldiers] informed us [that Vuckovic was] a terrorist who jumped over the fence [towards the headquarters] and tried to kill Glavas,” said Bece.



But Bece said Vuckovic appeared to have been running towards the fence and away from the headquarters when he was shot.



“I didn’t find any traces that would indicate someone had jumped over the fence because the fence was very high,” said Bece.



“One part was a little bit lower, with soil underneath it… If someone had been there, the traces of footprints would have remained.”



Bece said that blood found at the scene supported the theory that Vuckovic had been running in the direction of the fence when shot.



“When someone walks and blood is dripping, the drops of blood lengthen in the direction [in which the person is] walking. Those drops lengthened towards the fence,” he said.



Bece then explained that although a member of Glavas’s unit Krunoslav Fehir had said he killed Vuckovic, autopsy results later showed he had been poisoned. The autopsy report, which was read out in court, said the cause of death was “oral poisoning by sulphuric acid”.



Pathologist Mladen Marcekic confirmed that Vuckovic had been harmed by sulphuric acid. However, he could not remember whether the cause of death in the official report was poisoning or gunshot wounds.



Mladen Filipovic, the judge who investigated Vuckovic’s death, told the court that the soldiers present at the scene told him that the Serb was killed while trying to assassinate Glavas.



“The soldiers said [Vuckovic] wouldn’t stop so they shot and killed him… I had no reason not to believe them,” said Filipovic.



However, he acknowledged that the investigation was not carried out properly or professionally, saying this was because the country was at war.



He said police officers did not take sufficient evidence from the crime scene. He also said that he could not be sure what happened to the rifle the soldiers said was used to shoot Vuckovic, and added that he did not have the jurisdiction to disarm the soldiers.



Filipovic said he only learned from the pathologist the next day that Vuckovic had been poisoned as well shot.



Former mayor of Osijek Zlatko Kramaric also took the stand this week. He said knew nothing about any war crimes taking place in the town, although he heard stories during the war about Serb civilians disappearing.



He added that Glavas played a key role in defending the city and in the Croatian army – but said he had no reliable information about his exact role.



The prosecution said a man in Kramaric’s position “had to know” about Glavas’s role and his connection to crimes against Serb civilians.



The trial resumes on May 28 with testimony from Nikola Vasic who, according to indictment, was tortured in Osijek in 1991.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.