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

Dokmanovoic Trial: Defence Witnesses Testify

Tribunal Update 74: Last Week in The Hague (27 April - 2 May 1998)

Horrific footage of sufferings of the Serbs, Jews, and other prisoners of the most notorious Ustasha camp was shown before the court, and the witness talked about the criminal and genocidal character of the so-called Independent State of Croatia; the absence of a process of de-Nazification in the post-1945 period; and the lack of a Croatian "Willy Brandt" who would have knelt in front of the monument at Jasenovac and apologized to all - but primarily to the most numerous victims, the Serbs.

The uninformed observer could have also concluded that the former commander of Jasenovac was on trial from the witness's claim that, besides the Simon Wiesenthal Center, it was precisely the institution he heads that deserves the most credit for finding Sakic and initiating the proceedings for his extradition.

This, however, was not the trial of Dinko Sakic but of Slavko Dokmanovic, the former president of the Municipality Vukovar accused of participation in the massacre of at least 200 people who were taken away from the Vukovar hospital on 20 November 1991, only to be shot dead at the nearby Ovcara farm.

According to Dokmanovic's defense, what happened in Vukovar on 20 November 1991 was a reaction to Jasenovac, Sakic, the genocide against the Serbs, and the never-carried-out de-Nazification of Croatia. Simply put, the argument goes, the Serbs stood the chance of becoming victims of a second genocide in this century, this time at the hands of Tudjman's pro-Ustasha government and its international accomplices in the destruction of Yugoslavia, spearheaded by then-German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and Pope John Paul II.

The Serbs organized themselves and rose up in arms in self-defense against such a Croatian government and its foreign allies, while the massacres such as the one at Ovcara, the defense claims, were "excesses" that occurred in the process.

The witness who brought history into last week's proceedings and corroborated the defense's arguments was Dr. Milan Bulajic, the director of the Museum of the Victims of Genocide in Belgrade and the secretary of the Yugoslav State Commission for War Crimes and Genocide, a man who fancies and presents himself as a "Serbian Wiesenthal."

Apart from pointing to the crimes committed against the Serbs during World War II and their importance for understanding the events of half a century later, Dr. Bulajic was trying to prove that the 1991 war in Croatia was not an international conflict. He argued that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia still existed as a sovereign state at the time and that its armed forces, the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), acted legally on its territory in crushing the secessionist rebellion.

Dr. Bulajic also objected that the founding of the Tribunal "was not in accordance with international law," claiming that the former UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali also shared that opinion. In addition, Bulajic harshly reprimanded the prosecutor for having done nothing against the 13 Dutch mercenaries who fought on the side of the Croatian separatists, whose files the defense witness had submitted to the Tribunal back in 1995.

Apart from Dr. Bulajic, five more defense witnesses - Dokmanovic's former friends and acquaintances from Vukovar - testified last week. All of them described the atmosphere of fear and tension that preceded the war and the persecution of Serbs in Croatia, particularly in Vukovar. They depicted the accused Dokmanovic as a "humanist," a "pacifist," and a "moderate politician."

As such, they claimed, he had run into a great deal of trouble with the "Serbian extremists," who even threatened him with physical liquidation. Furthermore, all of them claimed that Vukovar was put under military rule following JNA's seizure of the town and that the local Serbian civilian government - in which Dokmanovic was the minister of agriculture - had absolutely no power or authority. In addition, all of them maintained that the clothes Dokmanovic wore during the events described in the indictment were a "hunting outfit," contrary to prosecutor's claims that those were some sort of "camouflage fatigues."

After they were shown video footage taken on 20 November 1991 in the courtyard of Velepromet transport company (one of the "collection centers" for Croats awaiting evacuation), the witnesses said that they could spot Dokmanovic (in the "hunting outfit") and Goran Hadzic, one of the Croatian Serb leaders at the time.

None of the witnesses, however, recognized the third person that could also be clearly distinguished on the recording: the notorious paramilitary commander Zeljko 'Arkan' Raznatovic. Even though some of them were testifying as protected witnesses, which prevented the disclosure of their identities, the witnesses obviously thought that it was not advisable - i.e. safe - to "identify" 'Arkan' before the court.

Two of the witnesses who testified last week arrived at The Hague with the prosecutor's "safe conduct" guarantees, meaning that they would not be arrested during their stay in the Netherlands. Both testified under protected identity (as "DB" and "DC"), even though Dokmanovic's attorney had announced their full names a week earlier.

In the direct examination, both claimed that on 20 November 1991 they came to the "collection center" at Velepromet looking for some close relatives of theirs but failed to find them there. In the cross examination, both claimed that they did not go from Velepromet to the JNA barracks (some 100 meters away), where six buses full of people taken from the Vukovar hospital were stopped.

Prosecutor Grant Niemann, however, was persistent and went on to barrage "DB" with questions such as: "I put it to you that you did go to the JNA barracks, and that you did see buses full of people"; "I put it to you that you said to [prosecution witness] Emil Cakalic that he was on the 'wrong bus,' and when he asked you 'which is the right one,' you replied: 'They are all the same'"; and "I also put it to you that you knew what would happen to those people on the buses."

Dokmanovic's attorney, Toma Fila, objected to the manner of examination, claiming that the prosecutor was arguing with and intimidating the witness instead of asking questions. Presiding Judge Antonio Cassese overruled Fila's objection, stating that it was "just another way of putting questions."

Emil Cakalic is one of the key prosecution witnesses, who on 5 February this year (see "Tribunal Update" no. 62) claimed before the court that he had seen Dokmanovic on 20 November 1991 at the hangar at Ovcara, where the victims were detained before they were shot.

In his testimony, Cakalic described how a colleague from the Municipal Assembly approached him at the JNA barracks (before he was taken to Ovcara) and told him "Emil, you're on the wrong bus." He quoted the names and the surname of the colleague and the colleague's wife, said that both were wearing uniforms, and added that he "later realized that they knew where we were being driven."

This was most probably the reason why the married couple "DB" and "DC" had demanded "safe conduct" guarantees as a precondition for testifying in favor of Dokmanovic at The Hague.