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Re-trial for Ovcara Murders Gets Under Way

The proceedings start amid rumours that a testimony from a Serb officer already acquitted by the Hague tribunal may be central to the case.
By IWPR ICTY
A second re-trial of 17 Serbs accused of war crimes in Croatia started this week in Belgrade, their previous trials having collapsed over procedural irregularities.



The 17 individuals, who are ex-paramilitary troops and former members of the Territorial Defence, TO, force, are accused of killing around 200 Croat prisoners at Ovcara farm in eastern Croatia.



The massacre came after the Yugoslav army captured the town of Vukovar in November 1991, and is one of the most notorious crimes of the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.



Serbia’s supreme court controversially overturned the Belgrade District War Crimes Chamber’s verdict last year, saying it had failed to prove the case indisputably and had violated its own procedures. A first re-trial was halted when a new judge had to be appointed.



The new case may hinge on the willingness of two ex-Yugoslav army officers to testify. One of them, Miroslav Radic, who was earlier this year acquitted of responsibility for the Ovcara massacre, may have to be forced to speak at this new trial.



“The commander of the Vukovar Territorial Defense, Miroljub Vujovic, and his deputy commander Stanko Vujanovic, ordered the killings of some of the prisoners of war. They ordered that groups of 30-40 captives be loaded onto a trailer and transported in 5 or 6 batches to the execution site at Grabovo, located approximately 1 km away from Ovcara,” said the indictment.



“The remaining captives were taken out in groups of 7 to 8 and lined up in front of a previously dug pit, where the accused Vukovar TO members approached the shot persons who were still showing signs of life and killed them by gunshots to the head. Subsequently, the corpses were buried in the pit and the earth flattened over by a bulldozer.”



All 17 men, of whom 15 were convicted and sentenced to between five and 20 years at the previous trial and two acquitted, plead not guilty.



Judge Vesko Krstajic, the president of the court, said he may call ex-officers Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, who were also tried for involvement in the massacre, to testify. Radic was acquitted by the ICTY, while Sljivancanin received five years in prison. Alongside Mile Mrksic, who was sentenced to 20 years, they made up the notorious “Vukovar Three”.



But Borivoje Borovic, who defended Radic at the ICTY, told IWPR his client would not give evidence.



“He doesn’t owe anything to anyone and he doesn’t know anything about the Ovcara massacre,” he said.



“It is impossible for Radic to go to the court and give testimony. In Croatia, an indictment against Radic is still in force. I don’t think this indictment has any legal strength, but it still exists. His statement can’t help anyone in this case. No civil, military or paramilitary structure helped Radic defend himself in the Hague tribunal. So, he doesn’t owe anything to anyone.”



But lawyers for the defendants were prepared to insist on his appearance, according to Rajko Jelusic, the lawyer for Miroslav Djankovic, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison the first time round.



“We expect and we are certain that Miroslav Radic will testify at this trial,” said Jelusic.



Meanwhile, pressure is growing in Serbia for officers to be put on trial for war crimes, since the Vukovar Three case largely acquitted the Yugoslav army of responsibility, and passed it onto paramilitary and local volunteer forces.



”The Hague tribunal’s verdict in the Vukovar Three case has contributed to minimising the army’s part in Ovcara and the domestic war crime prosecutor’s office has been discouraged in their attempts to shed some light on the army’s role in the massacre,” said the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Fund, FHP, in a statement issued recently.



Lawyer Dragoljub Todorović, who represents the families of the victims of Ovcara, told IWPR that army officers must bear responsibility for what happened, since they had created the conditions that allowed local forces to commit war crimes. He hoped the retrial would help bring that about.



“I disagree with the tribunal’s verdict in the Vukovar Three case and I think that Sljivancanin was responsible for the Ovcara massacre. Now that the Ovcara case has started again, I think the indictment is stronger then ever,” he said.



A spokesman for the war crimes prosecutors, meanwhile, said any trial of officers would have to wait until after this new trial had been completed.



Most senior officials have denied any knowledge of the killings and blamed them on their subordinates - a position repeated this week by ex-defence minister Veljko Kadijevic. Croatian police have issued an arrest warrant for the former minister, but he is currently safely under the protection of the Russian authorities.



He said in an interview with Serbian state television that the army’s security commander, General Aleksandar Vasiljevic, did not tell him about the massacre.



“Maybe you won't believe me, but the first time I heard about Ovcara was when I had retired,“ he said.



Vasiljevic, who testified as a prosecution witness at the Slobodan Milosevic trial in The Hague, said he too found about the massacre only two years after it happened, in 1993. He said Kadijevic had been informed of the crime by the chain of command leading from Mrksic, who was the commander of the troops in Vukovar.



Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR reporter in Belgrade.