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

Ex-Yugoslav Officers Confront Each Other in Court

Recently-convicted Yugoslav navy admiral takes the stand to testify against his onetime commander.
By Rachel S.

Former Yugoslav Army, JNA, general Pavle Strugar could not have been pleased to see Admiral Miodrag Jokic sitting in the witness stand in The Hague this week.


Strugar is accused of six counts of war crimes committed during three months in 1991 when Yugoslav forces pounded Dubrovnik with hundreds of artillery and mortar shells in response to Croatia’s declaration of independence.


Jokic, a former Yugoslav naval commander, who served under Strugar during the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik, pleaded guilty for his role in the attack and was sentenced on March 18 to seven years in prison, but returned to the courtroom to testify against his former boss.


Specifically, the indictment charges Strugar with responsibility for the deaths of two civilians, the wounding of three others, and the destruction of six buildings in the town’s historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, during this time. He has pleaded not guilty.


During the war, Strugar was commander of the JNA’s second operational group. Jokic, oversaw the ninth military naval sector, and reported to Strugar.


Jokic was initially slated to begin his testimony on March 22, but the tribunal ordered a delay after Strugar’s defence counsel, lawyer Vladimir Petrovic, complained that the prosecution had provided him with 27 hours of tapes of its interviews with Jokic only the previous Friday.


Petrovic said he couldn’t follow the prosecution’s examination of Jokic or to conduct an effective cross-examination without viewing the tapes in their entirety.


He also insinuated that the prosecution had given the defence tapes of their interviews at such a late date to scuttle his team’s efforts to defend Strugar.


“Is this perhaps being done deliberately? Or perhaps they are incompetent to do this job,” Petrovic said. “[The prosecution] is wasting your time, our time – wasting vast resources of the international community.”


The prosecution, however, denied Petrovic’s allegations, pointing out that providing the tapes of its interviews with Jokic was a courtesy, not a requirement.


Lead prosecutor Susan Somers said the prosecution had made the tapes for the judges in Jokic’s own case, so that they could document his substantial cooperation with the prosecution, a factor taken into account during sentencing.


However, she said that the prosecution thought the tapes would be useful for the defence and insisted that there was “nothing sinister” going on.


Still, the presiding judge, Kevin Parker, insisted that as a “matter of basic fairness to the defense” the tribunal would postponed Jokic’s testimony until the following day to allow Strugar’s lawyers to review the tapes.


But when the trial resumed on March 23, Petrovic told the judges that the prosecution had handed over an additional 11 hours of tapes the previous afternoon.


The tribunal again decided to delay Jokic’s testimony. Calling the postponement “very regrettable,” Judge Parker nonetheless insisted that “the interest of justice requires it”.


When Jokic did finally enter the courtroom on March 24, he looked considerably better than he did at his sentencing the week before. He made no eye contact with Strugar when he walked to the witness chair, though Strugar looked briefly in Jokic’s direction.


Strugar, too, looked suddenly improved in Jokic’s presence. While the general had sat slumped the previous two days, leaning heavily on a cane, he straightened considerably, donned a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, and took copious notes through significant parts of the witness’ testimony.


According to a psychiatrist retained by the defense, Strugar suffers from dementia, depression and post-traumatic stress.


The prosecution began its examination by questioning Jokic about the military chain of command during the Dubrovnik attack and whether Strugar knew about problems with the units involved.


Jokic said that among troops “discipline was not at the required level” because the units had been mobilised hastily, many soldiers had not been properly trained, and up to half of those present were reservists.


“It would have been obvious to any professional commander… that the lack of discipline manifested in noncompliance with orders…uncontrolled use of weapons, consumption of alcohol, looting, arson,” he said.


He later admitted, “The use of weapons was often outside of what was strictly a military necessity.”


The prosecution asked several times if Strugar was aware of these types of incidents. “Yes,” the witness repeatedly answered.


Jokic testified that Strugar, as the highest-ranking commander in Dubrovnik, tried to take measures to improve the situation. But the prosecution inquired if such problems had continued. “Yes, absolutely,” the witness replied.


Pressed on whether charges were later made in local military courts against troops involved in the shelling of Dubrovnik, Strugar simply said, “No, we didn’t have any of those.”


A superior can be held responsible for the actions of his subordinates if the former had reason to know that the latter committed, or was about to commit, crimes and did nothing to prevent the crimes or punish the subordinates.


Jokic pleaded guilty to just this type of responsibility. It remains to be seen whether his testimony - which is expected to last a total of six days - will help convict his old boss as well.


Rachel S. Taylor is IWPR deputy editor in The Hague.