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Kovacevic May be Tried in Belgrade

Hague to decide whether to transfer first ever case to Serbia’s fledgling war crimes court.
By Alison Freebairn

Dubrovnik indictee Vladimir Kovacevic - who is currently being treated in a Serbian military mental hospital - could stand trial in Belgrade following an official request from the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.


On November 2, tribunal president Judge Theodor Meron appointed a trial chamber comprising judges Alfons Orie, O-Gon Kwon and Kevin Parker to determine whether the case should be transferred to the authorities of Serbia and Montenegro.


This is the first Hague case to be recommended for transfer for trial in Serbia’s own war crimes chamber.


Belgrade has been lobbying intensively to be allowed to try individuals investigated and indicted by the Hague court – such as the four fugitive Serb generals accused of crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in 1999 – and analysts believe that the authorities are unlikely to be satisfied with a relatively low-profile case such as that of Kovacevic.


Under Rule 11 bis of its statute, the tribunal can transfer lower- and middle-ranking cases – such as Kovacevic – to a court in the country where the crimes are alleged to have taken place, or which is willing and able to hold the trial to internationally-approved standards.


In the October 28 request, Del Ponte noted that as the crimes were committed on Croatian soil, the judiciary of that country would normally be given the opportunity to take on the case “so that justice can be rendered as close as possible to the victims”.


However, the situation has been complicated by the accused’s mental health, which is described as “poor”.


In June 2004, the trial chamber noted that “the accused, at this point, suffers from a serious mental disorder which presently renders him unfit to enter a plea to stand trial”. It also noted that this condition may be improved if he were to receive treatment in a mental health facility which used his own language, Serbian.


The trial chamber agreed to grant provisional release to Kovacevic after hearing that Serbia and Montenegro had offered to treat the indictee at the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade. He remains in its care, and the prosecutor’s office has said that it “is not convinced that it would be in the interest of [Kovacevic’s] mental health to transfer him to a similar institution in a country were the crimes were alleged to have occurred”.


In the indictment, Kovacevic is accused of individual criminal responsibility for the unlawful shelling of civilians in Dubrovnik in December 1992.


The events in the indictment are alleged to have happened when soldiers under Kovacevic’s command attempted to capture a Croatian military position on Mount Srd, overlooking the historic walled city, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


When the troops came under fire from positions in the Dubrovnik area, Kovacevic allegedly ordered his artillery to fire on the Old Town – a non-military target. Two people died in the bombardment and several were injured, while hundreds of civilian buildings, historical, cultural and religious monuments were destroyed or badly damaged.


Kovacevic’s superior officers, General Pavle Strugar and Admiral Miodrag Jokic, have already appeared before the tribunal in connection with the attack on Dubrovnik.


Strugar pleaded not guilty to all charges, and is now awaiting sentence after his trial ended in July 2004.


In August 2003, following a negotiated plea agreement, the elderly Jokic pleaded guilty to six counts in the indictment against him. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment on March 18, 2004. His defence team, which had recommended a jail term of two years, is appealing this decision.


While the Kovacevic case is the first to be recommended for transfer from The Hague to Belgrade, Serbia has been ready to conduct war crimes trials since its 2003 adoption of a law allowing the Belgrade District Court to try Hague cases.


In her submission, Del Ponte describes Serbia’s judges and prosecutors “as professionally and technically capable of prosecuting this case … to internationally recognised standards of justice”. The Belgrade court’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic has expressed an interest in handling the case personally, she added.


Trial chambers have already been assigned to consider the transferral of other middle-ranking cases to the region under Rule 11 bis. These include the possibility of transferring those of Mirko Norac and Rahim Ademi to Zagreb and Zeljko Mejakic et al to Sarajevo.


The process is deemed to be a vitally important part of the Hague tribunal’s completion strategy, which foresees all trials being finished by 2008 and the court itself closing down altogether two years later.


The strategy, which has been rubber-stamped by the UN Security Council, envisages the transfer of many lower and middle ranking suspects to courts in the region where the crimes were allegedly committed.


As well as freeing up tribunal resources - allowing prosecutors to concentrate on bringing the more high profile indictees to justice - the move is seen as an important step towards reconciliation in former Yugoslavia.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.


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