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Dokmanovic Trial: Defence Opens Its Case

Tribunal Update 73: Last Week in The Hague (20-25 April 1998)

Dokmanovic was accused and arrested under suspicion that, together with three then-Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers, he was responsible for the massacre at the Ovcara farm in Vukovar, in which at least 200 people were shot dead on 20 November 1991.

In his opening statement, Fila described the massacre as an "excess of individual members of paramilitary formations and not a widespread and systematic crime." Without denying that at least 200 people - whose bodies were retrieved five years later from a mass grave on the location - died during that particular "excess," Fila challenged the prosecutor's interpretation of the events.

The prosecutor had maintained and attempted to prove that the crime had been planned and organized in advance; that the transport of so many people (including a couple of severely wounded persons) was a very complex operation in terms of logistics; that the accused had taken part in the selection of the location for the execution and the mass grave; that everything was carried out within the context of a systematic and widespread attack on the civilian population within the framework of the policy and practice of "ethnic cleansing."

It was nothing of the sort, claimed Fila. The mass execution in Ovcara was an "excess," which, the defense attorney continued, was obviously "not planned" and "lacked any discernible method." Referring to the statement of a prosecution witness, Fila argued that the persons taken away by soldiers under the command of Major Veselin Sljivancanin on that morning from the Vukovar hospital were subsequently "abducted from the JNA barracks by members of paramilitary formations and taken to Ovcara with no previous plan or preparations."

Fila announced that the defense will prove that Slavko Dokmanovic played absolutely no role in the whole episode. It will prove, first and foremost, that at the time and at the scene of the crime, Dokmanovic was neither formally nor de facto president of the Assembly of the Municipality of Vukovar, nor was he a member of any military or paramilitary formations.

Furthermore, Fila asserted, the defense will furnish an alibi for the accused for the critical period between 19 and 20 November 1991. Referring to the two prosecution witnesses who stated before the court that they had seen Dokmanovic at the Ovcara hangar sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. on 20 November, Fila claimed that they "had not told the truth, either on their own initiative or under someone else's influence." The attorney also speculated that they may "be mistaken due to the peculiar psychological situation in which they were [at the time]," since they were "beaten and terribly scared for their lives."

On the legal front, Fila first denied the prosecutor's argument about the international character of the war in Croatia, claiming that it was "an internal conflict" between "organized armed groups of rebel Croats" on one hand and "the JNA and the Serbs who were defending themselves from rebel Croats" on the other. Thus, he went on to argue, Article 2 of the Statute, which stipulates the Tribunal's jurisdiction in cases of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, cannot be applied in this case because those conventions are applicable only in international conflicts.

Finally, Fila denied Dokmanovic's individual or command responsibility, saying that Dokmanovic did not "execute, plan, or order" the massacre and that by virtue of not being a military commander he "did not know or could not have known about the critical events ... and consequently was not in a position to prevent them."

The hearing of the defense witnesses began after the opening statement. The first to appear were defense expert witnesses for constitutional and international law and the history of Serbs in Croatia. They argued that the secession of Croatia (and Slovenia) was "unconstitutional," since the right to self-determination belongs only to nations and not to republics; that according "to domestic and international law [the JNA] had the right to react to such an unconstitutional act in order to prevent secession"; and that the Serbs in Croatia had organized themselves politically and militarily for the purpose of "self-defense."

Besides the expert witnesses, three former Serb citizens of Vukovar testified last week. The three men were Dokmanovic's acquaintances and colleagues from Croatia's non-nationalist party of reformed communists, the Party of Democratic Changes (SDP).

On the eve of the war, Dokmanovic was elected president of the Municipality of Vukovar on SDP's list; the three witnesses were SDP members of parliament at the time. The three testified about the tense situation preceding the outbreak of hostilities, about the "extremists on both sides" causing incidents and attempts by Dokmanovic and his party to calm down the situation.

To that effect, the SDP, as the ruling party in Vukovar, conceded more posts in the municipal government to Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) than it should have received according to the local election results. The concession, the witnesses claimed, caused dissatisfaction among the Serbs, who thought Dokmanovic and the SDP were "handing over power to Croatian nationalists." This was the reason why Dokmanovic and his party colleagues, the witnesses claimed, were considered "traitors."

To support this, a fragment of a report by the so-called Serbian National Council was cited: "thanks to Dokmanovic's ineptitude as the president of the municipality ... the Croats have thrown out Serbs from the police and other positions of authority in Vukovar."

Presiding Judge Antonio Cassese then asked the witnesses: how come the "traitor" and "inept" Dokmanovic got appointed minister of agriculture in the government of the self-proclaimed Serb region of Slavonija, Baranja, and Zapadni Srem (after HDZ took over power in Vukovar in the summer of 1991)? None of the three witnesses was able to answer the question.

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