Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Defence lawyers for the three former Yugoslav army officers charged with overseeing the massacre of more than 250 patients taken from the Vukovar hospital in November 1991 argued this week that a prosecution witness was using television footage and a book she had read to concoct a false testimony of events she had not actually seen herself.
The witness, who gave evidence under protective measures with her face and voice concealed from the public, claimed that on the morning of November 20, 1991 she had been only three feet behind one of the accused, Veselin Sljivancanin, while he was remonstrating with a “man in white” at the exit to the hospital.
She said she assumed that the man was an international observer who had come to monitor the evacuation of patients from Vukovar, a city in eastern Croatia which had fallen to the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, only two days before, following a prolonged siege.
According to the witness, the man was asking Sljivancanin for a list to be drawn up of all those who were being loaded onto buses under JNA supervision. Sljivancanin apparently replied, “Sir, this is my country. There is a war going on. I give the orders around here. When I come to your country, I will behave as you would expect me to. Therefore you should behave in the same way.”
Such a statement could potentially support the prosecution’s claims that Sljivancanin “personally prevented” international monitors from reaching the hospital so that the JNA and paramilitary forces could carry out their own evacuation of patients without interference.
The indictment alleges that the three accused, Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic, and Veselin Sljivancanin, took part in a joint criminal enterprise which involved the removal of 300 Croats and other non-Serbs from the hospital on November 20, the day the witness supposedly overheard Sljivancanin’s conversation.
The detainees were allegedly taken from the hospital to the JNA barracks in a convoy of buses, and later driven to a farm near Ovcara where at least 264 people were summarily executed and buried in a mass grave.
But during cross-examination, Momcilo Bulatovic, defence counsel for Sljivancanin, tried to dispute the witness’ evidence by pointing out that she could have seen the conversation on television, or read it in Sljivancanin’s book entitled “This is my country”. The witness admitted to having read the book three months before arriving at the tribunal.
In addition, Mrksic’s defence lawyer, Miroslav Vasic, highlighted “significant” differences between this week’s testimony and a statement the witness gave to the office of the prosecution, OTP, in 1995.
During the examination-in-chief, the witness said that on November 20, she had seen a local doctor taking a military official, who he addressed as “comrade Mrksic”, round the hospital pointing out patients and saying “this one’s ours, and this one isn’t”, meaning that one was a Serb, the other a Croat.
This evidence would appear to bolster prosecutor Marks Moore’s argument that the joint criminal enterprise necessitated a procedure of systematic selection within the hospital, so that patients of non-Serb origin were sought out for removal.
However, in the witness’ 1995 statement, the military official is not identified as being the accused Mrksic.
Suggesting that this recent addition to the original testimony was fabricated, Vasic asked whether the fact that the witness’ husband is a suspected victim of the alleged massacre meant that she held a grudge against the accused. He said that perhaps she thought “no sentence would be long enough” to ameliorate her suffering, and her “bitterness” had led her to portray certain events “in the light that [she] saw them rather than as they are”.
The trial’s presiding judge, Kevin Parker, subsequently dismissed these suggestions, deciding that the discrepancies in the witness’ evidence could be explained by “the ordinary fallibility of human memory”.
The issue arose again when, contrary to her 1995 OTP statement, this week’s second witness, who also gave evidence under protective measures, denied that she had seen members of the Croatian National Guard, ZNG, disguising themselves as patients.
Under cross-examination from Vasic, the witness explained that the 1995 statement had been clarified in October this year to the effect that although she had heard about ZNG fighters putting on bandages to escape detection, she had never seen this herself. Vasic seemed unconvinced by this justification.
The trial will continue next week with the testimony of Vukovar hospital’s chief of surgery, Juraj Hjavro.
Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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