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Dokmanovic Trial: Closing Arguments

Tribunal Update 82: Last Week in The Hague (22-27 June 1998)

Three former Yugoslav People's Army [JNA] officers - Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Miroslav Radic - are also charged in connection with the massacre.

The trial lasted five months, during which each of the sides summoned some 40 witnesses. Closing the proceedings on Thursday, 25 June, Judge Cassese announced that the trial chamber's judgment may be expected within two weeks. It seemed as if the judges had already made a decision on the guilt or innocence of the accused, and that they only needed time to write the justification for their verdict.

Both the prosecutor and the defense submitted their closing statements in writing, limiting themselves to partial interpretations and explanations before the court. Chief trial prosecutor, Grant Niemann, mainly dealt with legal issues, whereas his associate in the Dokmanovic case spoke about facts that are, in the prosecution's view, proven beyond reasonable doubt. Above all, they were of the opinion that the international character of the conflict that unfolded in Croatia in the latter half of 1991 had been successfully proven.

According to the prosecution, the Serbs in Croatia had "legitimate reasons to be concerned" in 1990-1991, when the new (nationalist) Croatian government failed to make an effort to assure the Serb minority of its good intentions and to find a common ground with them. This provided a pretext for the Serbs to take up arms, a move they made confident of their imminent victory. According to the prosecution, the Federal Army (JNA) was not protecting the integrity of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Instead, it sided with the Serbs and turned itself into a Serb army. When Prosecutor Williams attributed the greatest responsibility for such development to the then-president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, the defense counsel, Belgrade lawyer Toma Fila, protested, pointing out that this was not relevant for this concrete case and that his own closing statement contained nothing on the role of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

Speaking about the events of the critical 20 November 1991, Prosecutor Williamson asserted that the decision regarding the fate of more than 200 people who were taken away from the Vukovar hospital by JNA soldiers (under the command of the three accused officers) and then executed at Ovcara in the evening of the same day, had to have been, if not made, then at least approved by the "government" of the so-called Serb Region of Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Srem that was in session in Vukovar on that day.

The prosecutor claims that the session was attended by Colonel Sljivancanin, who, according to the statements of many prosecution witnesses, commanded over the operation of the seizure of patients and civilians from the Vukovar hospital. That the decision about the fate of those people was really being made in that session is confirmed, the prosecutor argued, by the fact the buses with the detainees - who had been taken from the hospital in the morning - waited at the JNA barracks until afternoon, when the meeting of the self-styled Serb government was finished.

The prosecutor believes that all those who took part in that meeting are accomplices in the murder of at least 200 people, whose bodies were exhumed five years later from a mass grave at Ovcara.

According to the prosecutor, Dokmanovic is responsible not only because he took part in that meeting (as "agriculture minister"), but also because he also turned up at the Ovcara hangar in the afternoon hours of 20 November, where the detainees were awaiting execution and where he personally beat up several of them.

Moreover, the prosecutor claimed, the two Ovcara survivors who have told the court that they had seen Dokmanovic at the hangar on that day had no motive whatsoever to lie. Analyzing Dokmanovic's motive for the alleged visit to the hangar, the prosecutor argued that the accused decided to do so in order to see the detained "Ustashe" [Croatian fascists] and to prove that he was a "good Serb," i.e. to dispel accusations of being "lenient toward the Ustashe" heaved on him - as the defense was trying to prove - by Serb extremists.

On this token, Williamson pointed out that only defense witnesses described Dokmanovic as a "moderate", "pacifist," and "humanist," while the prosecution witnesses- -not only Croats but also impartial international observers and other foreigners who came into contact with him - claimed that he was a "nationalist," even an "extremist."

He was described in similar terms last week by Philip Corwin, a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Vukovar from 1992 to 1995. According to Corwin, Dokmanovic was "a nationalist, a hard-liner" who cooperated with the UN only to the extent it suited the local Serb leadership.

Drawing on his successful attack on the credibility of the video tape on which Dokmanovic's alibi rested, which the Tribunal witnessed a week earlier (see Tribunal Update 81), the prosecutor disputed the integrity of five defense witnesses who are also featured on the tape beside the accused. They, the prosecutor claimed, did not say the truth before the court either because they either wanted to protect the accused or because they wanted to conceal that they themselves had been with him at Ovcara.

The prosecution did not tell the court what sentence they advocated, but, as "Tribunal Update" has learned, the written version of the closing statement called for the severest possible punishment that the Tribunal can mete out: a life sentence.

The defense, naturally, disputed that the prosecution had managed to prove anything, from the international character of the war (which according to the defense, was an internal conflict) to any role that Dokmanovic may have played in the Ovcara massacre.

At the time of the crime, the defense claimed, military rule was set up in Vukovar and the local civilian authorities had no power over anyone, the least of all over the JNA and its paramilitary allies. The charges against Dokmanovic, Toma Fila argued, are based on mere hypotheses, which the prosecution failed to prove.

Fila especially insisted on exposing the frequent changes in the indictment against Dokmanovic: from the initial version, in which the accused was ascribed the same responsibility as the three JNA officers, to the latest one which accuses him of being present at the meeting of the "government" of the self-proclaimed Serb region and paying a short "visit" to the hangar at Ovcara. Had the prosecution initially come forth with the charges currently ascribed to his client, Fila went on, the Tribunal's judges would have never signed the warrant for Dokmanovic's arrest.

In an attempt at damage control regarding the shaken credibility of the alibi, Fila countered the prosecution's argument that the five defense witnesses had not said the truth before the court by saying that those people "cannot be called liars only because they did not remember [during the trial] that at one point they returned 350 meters in the direction of Vukovar" (see Tribunal Update 81).

Finally, even though he continued to deny his client's presence at the Ovcara hangar on the critical day, Fila asked a rhetorical question: even if Dokmanovic had been there for several minutes and hit two or three detainees, would it have been enough to summon him before the Tribunal, which according to Article 1 of its statute "shall have the power to prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law"?

Such "petty criminal responsibilities," as the defense would qualify Dokmanovic's possible "visit" to the Ovcara hangar, should be left to national courts, while the Tribunal, Fila argued, should concentrate on "fish" bigger than Dokmanovic.

Editor's note: Slavko Dokmanovic committed suicide at the UN Detention Unit in The Hague around midnight 28-29 june. The Tribunal has announced that it will be closing the case and that it will not issue a verdict. More detail will be given in the next "Tribunal Update".

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