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

Dokmanovic Trial: The Dramatic Finale

Tribunal Update 81: Last Week in The Hague (15-20 June 1998)
By IWPR ICTY

British Professor Paul Tabbush, an expert in silviculture and dendrology and a member of the International Poplar Commission.

Professor Tabbush testified in the trial of Slavko Dokmanovic, who is accused of co-participation in the mass killing of at least 200 people forcibly taken from the Vukovar hospital on 20 November 1991 to the nearby Ovcara farm, where they were executed later that day.

The professor's testimony, during which he "positively identified" certain poplar, mulberry, and walnut trees, might yet prove to be the prosecution's key proof in refuting the alibi provided by Dokmanovic's defense.

Dokmanovic's alibi is based on a video tape recording his movement on the critical 20 November 1991 (See Tribunal Updates 77 and 78). In late May, at the end of the cross-examination of Dokmanovic, prosecutor Clint Williamson self-confidently promised that he would "present extensive evidence" in the rebuttal phase of the trial to prove that the tape submitted by the defense had been at least partially altered. The prosecutor fulfilled that promise, and Professor Tabbush played a key role in the process.

Vladimir Dzuro, a Czech investigator with the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), performed a significant part of the preparatory work for the prosecutor's rebuttal of the alibi. He visited Vukovar in February this year and, based on the video tape, retraced the route that Dokmanovic and his guests (a delegation from Serbia that came to visit the "liberated" Vukovar) had taken on 20 November 1991.

Dzuro recorded everything with a video and photographic cameras from various angles and precisely measured the distances between certain locations. In his reconstruction, the OTP investigator particularly focused on two details that appear at the very end of Dokmanovic's alibi tape.

The first was recorded at 3:36 p.m., as the car with Dokmanovic and his guests was leaving Vukovar, heading southward. The next frame is recorded six minutes later, when the car with Dokmanovic stops to yield to a column of buses at the location the defense claims is the outskirts of Negoslavci, a village 5 kilometers south of Vukovar. All that can be seen on the recording are buses, a part of a roof of a house, and a treetop.

During his stay in Vukovar in early May this year, Professor Tabbush "positively identified" the walnut tree of which the treetop shown on the video tape is part. Not only did Tabbush identify that particular walnut tree but also other trees that appear on the alibi tape: a "rather specific" mulberry tree, 263 meters away from the already mentioned walnut tree in front of the house (the only such tree along the entire route that Dokmanovic took on that day), as well as a nearby "very distinctive Lombard poplar tree, the tallest in the area."

Professor Tabbush supported his assessments with mathematical calculations and computer simulations, explaining the patterns of branches, which are a result of "a combination of genetic and environmental factors," concluding that the trees differ from each other even more than people, i.e. that there are no two identical trees.

The gist of Dzuro's and Tabbush's testimonies is that Dokmanovic and his escorts, whom the tape shows as heading south from Vukovar at 3:36 p.m., were in fact on a location that is 370 meters north from that spot six minutes later (at 3:42 p.m.), that is closer to the center of Vukovar.

Hence, they must have made a U-turn and returned to the town, which further implies that the video tape submitted by the defense does not accurately reflect Dokmanovic's movement on that critical day.

That, however, still does not prove that Dokmanovic was at the Ovcara hangar, where he was allegedly seen by two witnesses who were lucky enough to have survived the massacre, but it undermines the credibility of his defense, which hinges on the video-tape alibi.

In another development last week, the credibility of Dokmanovic's testimony (see Tribunal Update 78) was shaken by witness "R." During the cross-examination in late May, Dokmanovic categorically refuted that he had ever been to the camp near Zrenjanin, Serbia, where more than 1,300 Croats and other non-Serbs were detained after the fall of Vukovar. Witness "R," however, claimed the opposite last week, and the accused - who never raised his gaze from the table in front of him during the entire course of the trial - followed "R"'s testimony with wide-open eyes.

"R" and Dokmanovic had become friends in 1983. "R" was a physician with the local football club and Dokmanovic was its president. They developed a close friendship and their respective families used to visit each other frequently. "R" became the Dokmanovics' family doctor. "R" was not involved in politics, nor did he ever get involved in the Serb-Croat dispute for the simple reason that he was neither Serb nor Croat, nor even a Yugoslav citizen (he comes from a Middle Eastern country).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he noticed that his friend Dokmanovic was becoming increasingly supportive of "extreme nationalist attitudes." After the war erupted, "R" saw Dokmanovic twice: both times in a uniform of a Yugoslav People's Army reservist and escorted by armed men.

Their second encounter was particularly painful for "R." He was arrested together with many non-Serb civilians from Vukovar on 19 November 1991 and taken to the camp in Zrenjanin. There were some 1,300 detainees there, "R" said. One day he was summoned to the management building for interrogation.

After the interrogation, while the guards followed him back to the stable where he and other detainees were being held, he passed by a uniformed Dokmanovic and his armed escorts in a narrow corridor of the management building. "When he saw me," "R" said, "Dokmanovic turned his head away, as if I didn't exist. I was very disappointed, because, as a friend, he knew that I was a foreigner and that I had stayed behind in Vukovar only as a doctor. He had some influence as the president of the municipality and he could have helped me."

When asked by the prosecutor to identify the accused, "R" turned his head with hesitation in the direction of the accused. Dokmanovic did not turn his head away this time: he continued to look at his former friend with his eyes wide open.