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Dokmanovic Trial: Defense Closes Its Case

Tribunal Update 78: Last Week in The Hague (25-30 May 1998)

The indictment holds Dokmanovic responsible for the fate of at least 200 people taken on 20 November 1991 from the hospital in Vukovar and killed at the nearby Ovcara farm. Three former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers are also charged in connection with the case.

Apart from Dokmanovic, 30 witnesses testified in his favor. The highest-caliber defense witness last week was Goran Hadzic, president of the so-called Serb Region of Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Srem at the time of the Ovcara crime. Hadzic testified via a video link established between the Tribunal and his office in Belgrade, since the prosecutor had refused to offer him safe-conduct guarantees to and from The Hague.

But despite the "safe distance" between him and the Tribunal, Hadzic appeared frightened throughout the testimony, especially when the prosecutor advanced a claim that the 20 November session of the "government" of the Serb region in Vukovar "was deciding about the fate of the people who were taken away from the hospital to Ovcara that day." Hadzic swore by God that this was not true, claiming that the detainees were under the jurisdiction and control of the JNA and not his government.

The defense maintains that the detainees were "abducted" from the local JNA barracks by members of paramilitary formations, who later shot them at Ovcara. That particular thesis was brought into question by another witness, Colonel Miodrag Pavlovic, who claimed that there were no paramilitary formations on the Serbian side but only "volunteers who were helping the Serbian people." When asked by the prosecutor whether those "volunteers" had been under JNA's command, Colonel Pavlovic, who headed the army's public relations department at the time of the crime, replied that "he is not familiar with that."

The prosecutor then showed television footage of a 1992 interview with General Andrija Biorcevic, former commander of the Novi Sad Corps and the man in charge of JNA's 1991 Vukovar operation. In the interview, General Biorcevic explained that Vukovar was demolished to such a great extent because "the Croats did not want to surrender and the Serbs didn't want to charge."

In that context, Biorcevic gave credit to his paramilitary allies, particularly to Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, who was in command of the notorious "Tigers." "Here is what was Arkan's greatest merit. We surround a village, his men go in, and kill anybody who refuses to surrender ... and we move on," the general enthused. Answering a prosecutor's question related to the footage, Colonel Pavlovic said that General Biorcevic's statement "was not in accordance with JNA's [standard] policy," but he was unable to explain Biorcevic's subsequent promotion, despite the deviation from "the policy."

By calling Dokmanovic himself to the witness stand last week, the defense had hoped to reinforce the portrait of the accused that other defense witnesses had tried to establish. Namely, Dokmanovic's precursors on the stand portrayed him as a moderate, a politician unburdened by nationalism, a pacifist, and an advocate of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia who consequently had run into trouble with both Croat and Serb nationalists.

Testifying with his head down and eyes fixated on the table in front of him (the position in which he spent all four months of the trial), Dokmanovic at one point resignedly noted that "he suffered at the hands of the Croats who accused him of being for Greater Serbia" and then suffered "at the hands of the Serbs, since - they claimed - he worked for the Croats and advocated their interests," only to fatalistically conclude: "I will probably suffer here as well."

In the ensuing cross-examination, Dokmanovic was at pains to explain some of his statements and actions that can hardly fit in - or do not fit in at all - with the defense's portrait of the accused. For example, the prosecutor recalled Dokmanovic's statements given in interviews to Serbian media or his talks with the Tribunal's investigators, in which he ascribed the responsibility for the conflict exclusively to the Croats and "Ustashe" (Croatian fascists) and claimed that there is "no way that Croats can ever come back to Vukovar," and that "from this day to eternity ... Vukovar will be a Serbian town." And "this day" - the day when Dokmanovic gave the statement to a television crew - was the fatal 20 November 1991.

The largest part of Dokmanovic's time on the stand was taken up by a detailed analysis of his whereabouts on that critical day. By chance, they were partly recorded on a video tape taken by a radio journalist from eastern Serbia. The defense presented that recording as the key evidence for the alibi of the accused (see Tribunal Update 77), claiming that it unambiguously shows that Dokmanovic was not at the site of the crime, the hangar at the Ovcara farm. (Two Ovcara survivors who testified earlier as prosecution witnesses claimed to have seen him there on that day.)

The prosecutor, however, claimed that Dokmanovic had enough time to "pop up" at Ovcara and quickly beat up several detainees in the intervals when the camera was off. Besides, the prosecutor claimed that the tape submitted by the defense had been partially "altered," and he confidently announced that he will "present extensive evidence" to prove it during the further course of the trial.

According to the prosecutor, the very end of the tape is particularly suspicious. It features a part of a roof of a house, a treetop, and a passing bus. The tape shows that this was recorded at 15:42, and the defense claims that the recording was made at the outskirts of Negoslavci, a village south of Vukovar. The tape also shows the car with Dokmanovic and his escorts leaving the last houses in the south end of Vukovar at 15:36 and heading southward.

The prosecutor claims that the final scene (the roof, the treetop, and the bus) was recorded on a location that is 370 meters north from the point where the car had been at 15:36. "How is it possible," the prosecutor asked, "unless you made a 180 degree turn and went back in the direction from which you came?" The location the prosecutor was referring to is only 3 kilometers away from the Ovcara farm, where the last preparations for the killing of at least 200 detainees were going on precisely at that time.

At the end of his testimony, following Presiding Judge Antonio Cassese's request, Dokmanovic put on the "hunting outfit" (according to the defense), that is "camouflage fatigues" (according to the prosecutor), in order to be established whether that was what he wore when the video was taken. Dokmanovic had claimed on several occasions that he was wearing the above mentioned "hunting outfit" at the time for two reasons: first, it "was easier to maintain" in war conditions (it did not have to be washed or ironed), and second, it made it easier for him to cross numerous checkpoints, where "civilian clothes were not well seen."

Constantly apologizing to the accused for disturbing him with his questions, Judge Cassese asked Dokmanovic to "help him understand [something]." He asked, "I assume that everybody in Yugoslavia knew that it was a hunting suit, and not a military uniform, and I wonder why soldiers did not stop you at the checkpoints, since you were not in a uniform."

Dokmanovic was unable to answer that; he only repeated the "two reasons," leaving Judge Cassese to "wonder" as to how soldiers at the checkpoints could not tell the difference between a civilian suit and a military uniform.

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