Regional Report: New Paulin Dvor Revelations

Army officers suspected of attempting to cover up wartime atrocity are likely to escape prosecution.

Regional Report: New Paulin Dvor Revelations

Army officers suspected of attempting to cover up wartime atrocity are likely to escape prosecution.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Senior Croatian military figures implicated in a gruesome plot to move the bodies of Serbs killed in an atrocity will get away free – because of a bizarre quirk in Croatian law.

A five-year statute of limitations on the charge of concealing a crime means nobody can be jailed for the removal of the corpses from eastern Croatia in 1997.

The news is likely to infuriate war crimes officials at The Hague tribunal, which is already angry that Croatia has refused to hand over its former army commander, Janko Bobetko, who’s wanted on war crimes charges.

One official connected with the tribunal told IWPR that the news flies in the face of Zagreb’s claim that it is now ready to handle its own war crimes cases.

“This sounds ridiculous,” said the official. “I can’t believe that this is the law. Certainly I would think The Hague would want to look into this.”

The story began in 1991 when Croatian forces murdered 17 Serbs and one Hungarian near the town of Paulin Dvor.

The following day, the bodies were buried in a mass grave in the grounds of a Croatian military base at Lug.

Some time between the massacre and the burial, Serbian paramilitaries turned up at the site of the crime and removed one of bodies. It’s unclear why they did this.

Then, in 1997 UN teams moved into the area to probe atrocities.

And someone – nobody is saying who – ordered the bodies dug up and taken away to make sure the UN did not find them.

So 17 corpses were taken away in secret and buried in black plastic barrels in a field near Gospic, 800 kilometres away.

The story would have ended there – except that another UN team, probing war crimes charges against Bobetko, stumbled on the bodies in a routine investigation last year.

Croatia insisted on dealing with the case, telling The Hague it could cope with it.

Instead, Zagreb has admitted that the perpetrators, whoever they are, will go free.

Prosecutors say the only charge that can be levelled is that of concealment of a crime, but the five year statute of limitations means that those responsible for the cover-up cannot be prosecuted.

Quite why the crime was framed with such limitations in the first place is unclear.

So far, only one man has admitted involvement – Croatian general Djuro Decak, the former commander of the Osijek garrison, who has stated publicly that he knew where the bodies were reburied.

But investigators suspect other senior figures were involved – they would have to have been for someone to give orders for a removal operation to take place in the middle of an army depot.

Decak has also revealed that he wrote a letter to Miroslav Tudjman, son of the late president Franjo Tudjman, asking for guidance about what to do with the corpses during the late Nineties. At the time, the letter was written, Miroslav was an official in the secret service.

Tudjman has refused to comment on the case.

A source at the state prosecutor’s office said they are investigating a secret meeting on January 14, 1997 - involving senior commanders - to discuss what should be done with the bodies.

Meanwhile, investigations are making progress into the original atrocity.

Two former soldiers have been arrested for the killing, and ten more are likely to be detained, say prosecutors.

It may be that one of them can provide information on why senior commanders would decide to conceal the crime.

If so, it will not make happy reading for the Croatian government. Its refusal to hand over Bobetko has already brought it into conflict with The Hague. Revelations of a conspiracy to cover up the Paulin Dvor crime would no doubt deepen the crisis.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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