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Regional Report: Trifunovic Faces New Ordeal

A Serbian general convicted in Serbia and Croatia for his part in the Yugoslav war is now facing prosecution in Slovenia.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Until the break-up of Yugoslavia, General Vlado Trifunovic, a Bosnian Serb from Kozara, had a distinguished career in the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, and was looking forward to the comfortable retirement accorded to all military officers.


But in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, Trifunovic found himself in the precarious position of commanding a JNA unit deployed in parts of both the breakaway republics.


As Yugoslavia plunged into war and the JNA splintered, Trifunovic and his men came under heavy attack and were forced to surrender. When he returned home to Belgrade, he was denounced as a coward and in 1992, he was put on trial for treason.


The following year, Croatia announced that it had indicted the general for war crimes. Zagreb claimed that Trifunovic used JNA aircraft to bomb civilian targets.


Now, it seems, Trifunovic’s troubles have grown even worse. Late last month, a Belgrade court announced that it was interrogating the general at the request of a Slovenian court, which now wants to put the general on trial for war crimes in Slovenia. The Slovenian request makes Trifunovic the first Yugoslav officer to be tried in relation to his wartime service in three countries.


“Three republics which were once in a joint state - and subsequently clashed in the military, political and economic fields - are after me, all three of them,” Trifunovic recently said in an interview with Belgrade’s B-92. “It’s nonsense that I am being sued by my own country and by a country which was in dispute with my country.”


The various charges filed against Trifunovic accuse him of unethical and ineffective military tactics and practices.


However, human rights groups, think tanks and many Balkan politicians believe all the general is guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


In 1991, Trifunovic was in charge of the JNA’s Varadzin corps, which included eight garrisons spread out over 100 km, including parts of Croatia and Slovenia.


When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991, he claims his superiors ordered him to prevent the breakaway republics from seceding. He said they assured him that the JNA was doing everything it could to defend the territorial integrity of the country.


He obeyed the orders and clashes broke out between the JNA and Slovenian defence forces the very next day.


Unknown to Trifunovic, however, the collective eight-man presidency of Yugoslavia which was officially in charge of the army secretly withdrew army personnel from Slovenia, and the republic was allowed to secede without much of a fight.


Over the next few weeks, thousands of non-Serb JNA soldiers deserted en masse, and many of the Croats joined their republic’s emerging armed forces.


In just a few weeks, the Varadzin corps dwindled from 30,000 to 1,800 men. By September 1991, Trifunovic had only 300 soldiers under his command.


The Croats, meanwhile, had built a formidable force and their attacks were growing more intense. Trifunovic requested reinforcements but they never arrived. Instead, he says, he received orders telling him to “put on a brave face and put up a courageous fight”.


He continued fighting as long as he could, but on September 17 the Croatian forces attacked the Varadzin corps, sending Trifunovic’s troops fleeing for cover in nearby villages and mountains.


Trifunovic knew his men didn’t stand a chance against the more numerous Croatian forces, so to avoid a slaughter he threatened to use JNA artillery to level Varazdin unless the Croats allowed him to surrender and guaranteed safe passage for him and his troops. They did so, and Trifunovic returned to Belgrade with 200 of his soldiers and 60 of his officers.


He thought he would be praised for sparing his soldiers’ lives. Instead, he was met with hostility. High-ranking JNA officers criticised him for being cowardly, chastising him in particular for letting the army’s weapons fall into enemy hands and not stemming the desertions.


Trifunovic protested that under the circumstances, he didn’t have any other choice. But his critics disagreed, saying, for instance, that he might have deterred soldiers from deserting by shooting some of the first to do so to set an example.


The military launched a smear campaign against Trifunovic, denouncing him as a traitor. Eventually, he was charged with high treason. Soon the state-run media weighed in, claiming that he was responsible for Serbia’s losses in Croatia.


His superiors condemned him. General Jevrem Cokic, who had previously been the commander of the Varazdin corps, suggested that Trifunovic should commit suicide to redeem himself. "One saved army unit was too little in comparison to all the military equipment which fell in the hands of the enemy. It is an honour to defend it with your life instead of bringing back one tenth of a corps’ personnel,” Cokic said.


During his trial, however, the court heard riveting testimony that backed up Trifunovic’s claims.


Colonel Sreten Raduski, who was stuck with a group of soldiers from the Varadzin corps on Mount Papuk when the Croats attacked, described how 20-year-old recruits broke down into tears, tossed away their guns and demanded that he lead them out of the hostile enemy territory.


Despite the condemnation of military leaders and press denunciations, the court found Trifunovic not guilty.


The public and the legal, military and political establishment were shocked by the verdict. One judge, Djordje Dozet, was quoted after the trial as saying, "What's going on with our presiding judge? Has he gone mad?"


Trifunovic, however, was thrilled and, for a brief moment, thought his legal problems were over.


Shortly thereafter, however, in March 1993, Zagreb indicted the general for war crimes, trying him in absentia and sentencing him to 15 years imprisonment.


In the meantime, the prosecution appealed the finding of the treason trial. The Belgrade establishment was desperate for a scapegoat to explain away its military defeats and put Trifunovic on trial again in June 1993. This time, Judge Dozet, who had publicly questioned the previous verdict, was assigned to preside over it.


Most assumed that Dozet would convict the general, but after the lengthy re-trial, even he ruled that Trifunovic was not guilty.


Once again, the finding angered the establishment. In October 1994 Trifunovic was put on trial again, and this time, under pressure from the military, the general was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison.


The trial was criticised by human rights groups in Serbia. "The trial of General Trifunovic was conducted and used as a means for propaganda and manipulation," said the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund. “While the ultimate objective was to divert attention from the responsibility of the political and military leaders and to corroborate their claim that someone else's treason was responsible for their failures and futile sacrifices of innocent people."


Vojin Dimitrijevic, the head of the Belgrade Human Rights Centre, said the general became a fall guy.


"While obeying orders, Trifunovic was forced to choose whether to be responsible for unnecessary casualties and an honourable escape from such a quagmire. Trifunovic ceased fire and saved his soldiers from grave danger. A group of incompetent high-ranking military officers – generals and colonels – conspired to pin the blame on him for their incompetence," Dimitrijevic said.


Under pressure exerted on the government by the independent media, NGOs and the international public, Trifunovic was pardoned and released from prison. He had spent 18 months in jail, suffered two strokes and undergone surgery for cancer. His life was in tatters.


Because of the war crimes charges levelled against him in Croatia, he was afraid to leave Serbia to visit his son and daughter who had remained in Zagreb, despite being sacked from their jobs and evicted from their apartments.


His wife, Milka, had long since fled to Germany where she works to support the increasingly destitute family.


In the wake of the March assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, Trifunovic’s lawyers had hoped that the state might redress the injustices done to the general under Milosevic’s rule and begin a process to rehabilitate him.


But just as Trifunovic and his supporters got their hopes up, a court in Slovenia asked Belgrade to interrogate the general in regard to war crimes charges it issued in 1995. The Slovenes claim that he is responsible for the death of a member of the Slovenian National Guard at the Gorjna Radgona border crossing on June 27, 1991.


Belgrade interrogated the general and sent the interview to the Murska Sobota court in Slovenia.


Trifunovic’s lawyer, Milan Stanic, told IWPR that he hoped the Slovenian prosecutor would drop the charges or that Trifunovic could be tried again in absentia so that he would not have to face yet more legal proceedings.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.


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