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

Ovcara Trial Misgivings

Concerns raised over Belgrade indictment against Serbs implicated in eastern Croatia atrocity.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Serbian rights activists and legal experts have expressed doubts about the upcoming trial of eight Serbs accused of taking part in the execution of 260 Croatian prisoners of war at the Ovcara farm outside of Vukovar in 1991.


They fear that the trial may downplay the role of the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, in the notorious Croatian war atrocity.


International legal experts describe the proceedings – set to begin on March 9 - as a test case that will determine whether the Serbian judiciary is up to the difficult task of handling war crimes trials.


Although eight different war crimes trials have taken place in Serbian courts since 1995, the trial of suspects in the Ovcara farm killings – one of the most brutal incidents of the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the Nineties – will be the first to be heard by a special war crimes court set up in Belgrade’s district court six months ago.


The idea is to transfer medium to low-level indictees from The Hague to courtrooms in the regions where the crimes were committed. The international community hopes that this will help the tribunal clear its caseload - before it is wound up towards the end of the decade - and enable local people come to terms with the war years. However, critics are already voicing their concerns.


The eight men slated to face trial were indicted thanks in large part to evidence provided by the tribunal.


In November 1995, the Hague court indicted three JNA officers in connection with the killings in Ovcara. The so-called Vukovar Three - Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin - are all accused of having command responsibility for the execution of the POWs and are currently in custody in The Hague.


In May last year, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte visited Belgrade and handed the Serbian authorities eight boxes of documents containing evidence that reportedly implicated others in the Ovcara killings.


In December, special prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic issued an indictment against Spasoje Petkovic, Stanko Vujanovic, Jovica Peric, Mirko Vojinovic, Ivan Atanasijevic, Predrag Madzarac, Miroljub Vujovic and Milan Vojinovic - all members of the JNA-controlled Vukovar National Guard – in connection with the killings. All are in custody. Several had already been detained as part of Operation Sabre, a police crackdown launched after the March 12 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.


One of the suspects, Vujanovic, allegedly attempted suicide on January 27 by jumping from the second floor of a Novi Sad hospital. He survived and is now recovering.


An additional 16 people are under investigation, according to investigative judge Miroslav Alimpic, and nine of these are in detention.


While those who attach great importance to the trial are pleased that prosecutors have come up with 27 suspects, some legal experts and rights activists say they are unhappy with the Belgrade indictment as it charges low-level combatants with organising and ordering the killing of the Croatian POWs, seemingly downplaying the alleged role of the Vukovar Three.


The Belgrade indictment claims that the suspects ordered the prisoners to be transported by bus from the Vukovar hospital to the Ovcara farm. Once there, the prisoners were forced to run a gauntlet of armed territorial defence soldiers, who beat them with a variety of weapons.


The soldiers then dragged some of the prisoners out of the building and shot them in the back of their heads.


According to the indictment, the Serb troops then divided the remaining prisoners into groups of around 30 to 40, loaded them onto a tractor trailer and drove them roughly a kilometre to Grabovo, where they were summarily executed seven or eight at a time.


The indictment claims that around 180 of the 260 prisoners were killed by execution squads, then thrown into a ditch and bulldozed over.


Nowhere does the indictment mention the roles of the JNA officers in tribunal custody.


“By doing this the prosecution shows that it is distancing itself from the tribunal, and we wonder if this is maybe an attempt to play down the responsibility of the three indicted officers,” Jovan Nicic, a legal analyst with the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Centre, told IWPR.


He added that Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic issued a statement during Operation Sabre, claiming that the police had collected evidence “exonerating Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin of responsibility”. At the time, the colonel was refusing to turn himself over to the tribunal. He was later arrested at his Belgrade home.


Nicic's second objection is that the Belgrade indictment mentions 182 victims, despite the fact that The Hague has established that were 260.


Bogdan Ivanisevic, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, also believes that the charges purposely play down the role of the JNA, saying that they fail to mention that the trucks used to transport the captured patients from the Vukovar hospital to Ovcara were under Yugoslav military control.


“The noticeable absence of the JNA from the indictment could arouse suspicion that the intention is to push the link between the commissioners of the crime and the army into the background,” Ivanisevic said.


Under Serbian legislation, the crimes alleged to have been committed at Ovcara carry a maximum penalty of 40 years.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a Belgrade-based journalist.


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