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REGIONAL REPORT: Lora Trial Prosecutors Seek Relocation

Suspected intimidation and judicial bias prompt prosecutors in the Lora camp war crimes trial to call for case to be relocated.
By Goran Vezic

The war crimes trial of eight former guards from the Lora military prison has been adjourned pending a decision from the Croatian supreme court on whether the case should be heard outside Split.

The request to move the trial was made by Croatian state prosecutor Mladen Bajic following complaints that witnesses testifying against the defendants were being intimidated and that the atmosphere in the Split courthouse was too partisan.

Since the trial got underway a number of prosecution witnesses have refused to appear, citing illness or an inability to recall key incidents.

Several former Croatian military police officers claim they can no longer remember the events in question, despite the detailed accounts previously given to the pre-trial investigators. Likewise, former inmates at the prison have declined to answer court summonses or have changed testimony on the stand.

Former Lora prisoner Milosav Katalina said his poor health prevented him appearing. Katalina was assaulted by unknown assailants inside the Split court building during the investigative stage of the proceedings.

Another former inmate Ugljesa Bulovic, whose brother Gojko was allegedly murdered in the prison, said he could not appear because of "the general state of things". He would not be more specific.

Rade Krivic, another inmate, told the court that the fact he was electrocuted while being held at the jail was "irrelevant". Krivic said he could not identify his torturers.

Security concerns have, meanwhile, prevented two groups of five witnesses, all ex-detainees, from travelling from Yugoslavia to take the stand. When the Split authorities could offer no official guarantees for the witnesses' safety, some non-government organisations recommended the trip be cancelled.

In contrast, two defence witnesses, former military police officers Mario Barisic and Milorad Paic, enjoy full police protection.

Prosecution witnesses have just cause to fear for their own safety. In summer 2000, Milan Levar, a witness in the trial of those accused of war crimes against Serbs in the Gospic region, was killed by a land mine planted outside his house. His murderers have yet to be apprehended.

Although the start of proceedings against the Lora guards should be welcomed as a step in the right direction, the problems encountered during the trial call into question the country's readiness to undertake such prosecutions against nationals accused of crimes against Croatian and Bosnian Serbs.

The eight Lora defendants -Tonci Vrkic, Miljenko Bajic, Josip Bikic, Davor Banic, Emil Bungur, Ante Gudica, Andjelko Botic and Tomo Dujic - are charged with the illegal detention and torture of Serbian and Montenegrin civilians, and of the murder of two of the former.

Sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution was available as far back as 1992, but no action was taken until after the demise of late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his nationalist regime. Seven of the former police officers are now in custody. Dujic, director of the prison in 1992, is still at large and is being tried in absentia.

When the trial finally got underway on June 10, 2002, the accused were welcomed in court by loud applause from the public galleries. Well-wishers have lit candles in support of the policemen outside the court.

The eight former police officers enjoy significant political support in Split. Branimir Luksic, the right-wing prefect of the Split-Dalmatia county, has been vocal in his opposition to the trial. Luksic even contributed to the defendants' defence fund out of the municipal budget.

In mid-June, Prime Minister Ivica Racan expressed his dissatisfaction with events surrounding the trial. The state prosecutor lodged his request for the relocation of the case the following day, prompting accusations of political interference.

There is some suspicion that in pushing for a transfer the government is seeking to conceal the weakness of the judiciary. There is also speculation that The Hague tribunal is less than impressed with the Split case and wants action.

There are mixed opinions, however, on whether transferring the trial to a different city would be a positive move. Some observers argue that if it continues in Split there is little if any chance of a just verdict being reached. Others insist the trial must not be moved because the time has come for the judiciary to find the strength to try such crimes in the places where they were committed.

Only by keeping the trial in Split can one have any hope of ensuring public acceptance of a possible guilty verdict.

Whatever the outcome, one politically significant detail has already emerged from the trial. A number of witnesses have confirmed that in spring 1992 Serb prisoners from Kupres and Trebinje, both towns in Bosnia, were held at Lora. This was before the signing of the Split agreement on cooperation between the Croatian and Bosnian armies.

That Bosnian citizens were being held prisoner in Croatia calls into question the denials by the then Tudjman government of interference in Bosnia. It also casts doubt on the recent testimony of parliamentary deputy Ivic Pasalic, given to The Hague at the trial of Mladen Naletilic Tuta, denying Croatian involvement in the Bosnian conflict.

Despite the problems faced during the Lora trial, the controversy surrounding the case and the pursuit of other high-profile prosecutions indicates that the country is making real efforts to confront the issue of war crimes perpetrated by Croatian nationals. In Rijeka, the trial against the so-called "Gospic group" is continuing, while the trial of those accused of crimes at Pakracka field, including former interior minister Tomislav Mercep, has reopened.

Goran Vezic is a journalist with the independent news agency Stina in Split.

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