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Prosecution witness Davor Strinovic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
The trial of Croatian Serb political leader Goran Hadzic at the Hague tribunal resumed this week with testimony from a pathologist involved in exhumations of mass graves in Croatia.
Prosecution witness Davor Strinovic told the court that he worked with the Commission for Missing Persons and Prisoners of War in Croatia for several years during and after the war in that country.
In fairly brief testimony, which complemented a written overview of the exhumations presented by the prosecution, the witness stated that "almost a thousand" people – 968 to be precise – were still considered missing from the conflict in Croatia, in addition to the 950 whose remains had been exhumed so far.
Another 743 people, mostly of Serb ethnicity, were missing from the period of fighting in western Croatia in 1995.
The witness noted that there had been "considerable difficulties in carrying out the exhumation and identification of human remains in the region”. This he said was caused “largely by the impossibility to cooperate with the appropriate Serb authorities” while the war was still going on.
"You see, an American forensic anthropologist informed us that a mass grave had been discovered already in 1992. However, it was impossible to do anything with this mass grave until 1996, again due to obstructions by the local Serb authorities,” Strinovic said.
He said some bodies washed up from the river Danube in northern Serbia, and were buried there as “unknown” but were later sent back to Croatia for autopsy and identification in 1996.
Such a passage of time, the witness said, made it difficult to identify decaying remains.
Strinovic said the exhumations showed that many of the dead had been shot at very close range, execution-style.
Arrested in Serbia in July 2011, Hadzic is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed against the Croat and non-Serb population, including persecution, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.
During the war in Croatia in the early 1990s, Hadzic held senior political positions in Serb-held regions. He was president of the government of the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, known as SAO SBWS, and was president of the so-called Republic of the Serbian Krajina, RSK – which absorbed SAO SBWS territory – from February 1992 to December 1993.
He is also alleged to have been part of a Joint Criminal Enterprise whose members were pursuing the “permanent forcible removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from approximately one-third of the territory of the Republic of Croatia” in order to create a Serb-dominated state.
Hadzic was not present in court for some of the witness’s testimony, as it was Christmas according to the Christian Orthodox calendar.
During cross-examination, his lawyer Zoran Zivanovic said the defence had attempted to obtain "full and detailed information about the victims and their exhumations” from the Croatian missing persons commission, but these efforts “were unsuccessful and proved an impossible undertaking".
Zivanovic said that the prosecution “apparently faced the same difficulties" but did not provide any further details.
The witness, who is still a member of the missing persons commission in Croatia, said he had no idea why access to such information would be restricted, noting that he was hearing this for the first time.
The defence lawyer also inquired about the teams that took part in exhumations, asking why there were more pathologists than forensic medical experts.
The witness said the distinction between the two professions was minor, and that while both "dealt with the same subject”, pathology was more about natural causes of death, whereas forensic medicine focused on violent deaths and also sought to help solve crimes.
Strinovic said the terms were often used interchangeably, especially in translation, and this led to confusion.
"However, I can assure you that all the members of the exhumation teams which worked on the field were indeed qualified experts in forensic medicine,” the witness said.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.
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