Serb War Crimes Suspect Escapes Extradition

Court upholds defendant’s appeal against decision to send him to Croatia.

Serb War Crimes Suspect Escapes Extradition

Court upholds defendant’s appeal against decision to send him to Croatia.

An Australian court has upheld an appeal from former Croatian Serb paramilitary commander and war crimes suspect Dragan Vasiljkovic against his extradition to Croatia.

On September 2, the full bench of the Australian Federal Court unanimously upheld Vasiljkovic’s appeal against a prior ruling that he be transferred to Croatia, where he is wanted to stand trial for war crimes committed during Croatia’s 1991-1995 war of independence from the former Yugoslavia.

The county prosecutor's office in the southern Croatian city of Sibenik accuses Vasiljkovic of having violated the Geneva Conventions while he commanded a special purpose unit that formed part of a Croatian Serb paramilitary force during the conflict.

Vasiljkovic – who during the war fought under the nom de guerre Captain Dragan – is charged with involvement in the torture, mistreatment and killing of captured Croatian soldiers and police in Serb-held Knin in June and July, 1991, and in the southern village of Bruska near Benkovac in 1993.

He is also accused of having drawn up, in agreement with the commander of a Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, tank unit, a plan to attack and seize the police station in Glina municipality in eastern Croatia.

Vasiljkovic was arrested in Sydney on January 20, 2006 under an international arrest warrant issued by Croatia, and he has been held in custody ever since. According to Australian press reports, the Australian national, also known as Daniel Snedden, had been working as a golf coach.

In February this year, an Australian federal court judge dismissed Vasiljkovic’s appeal against an earlier decision by a lower court to agree to Zagreb’s request to extradite him.

Vasiljkovic, who has denied committing war crimes, brought a defamation case against publisher Nationwide News over an article published in The Australian newspaper in September 2005, which detailed crimes he allegedly committed as the commander of the notorious Alfa paramilitary unit.

According to press reports, some witnesses testifying in this case – which was heard at Australia’s New South Wales Supreme Court earlier this year – said that Vasiljkovic participated in crimes, and was present during beatings and rapes. A judgement in the case is pending.

This week, the country’s Federal Court upheld Vasiljkovic’s appeal against his extradition, concluding that he had established “a substantial or real chance of prejudice if he was extradited” to face trial Croatia.

“The second ground of appeal is thus made out, that there are substantial grounds for believing that he may be punished or imprisoned... and that such treatment arises by reason of his nationality or political opinions," the court ruling stated.

"The appeal should thus be allowed,” it said.

According to Croatian media reports, the decision to uphold Vasiljkovic’s appeal caused an outcry in Croatia, particularly in relation to the Australian court’s finding that he would be discriminated against because of his nationality.

“I’m deeply disappointed,” said former Croatian justice minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt in an interview with state television channel HTV.

The politician, who initiated the extradition proceedings against Vasiljkovic, told HTV that she was aware that the extradition procedure was extremely complex, adding that she believed there were only three possible reasons for this outcome.

“Either procedures were not conducted in a precise manner, the evidence [against Vasiljkovic] wasn’t strong enough, or this is a political decision,” she said.

Ozbolt urged the Croatian government to take action following the ruling, and find some other way of launching legal proceedings against Vasiljkovic, noting that under Croatian law, war crimes charges do not expire after a certain period of time.

However, she dismissed the possibility raised by some Croatian nationalists this week that the final Australian court verdict was somehow influenced by the Serbian lobby in Australia – comprising Serbian immigrants – because she said it was unlikely that any such lobby could affect the country’s federal court.

But Croatian members of parliament were convinced that the verdict had been influenced by a powerful Serbian lobby in Australia.

Ante Djapic, president of the nationalist Croatian Party of Rights, HSP, told the Croatian media that he was concerned about the ruling, arguing that “it was as if [Vasiljkovic’s appeal] had been heard in Serbia”, rather than in Australia.

It was not only Croatian nationalists who shared this opinion.

Ivica Pancic from the Socialist Democrats Party, SDP, agreed with Djapic, telling the local media that the decision not to extradite Vasiljkovic was a victory for Australia’s Serbian lobby.

“I don’t see any other possibilities. It is clear that Serbian lobby is strong there [in Australia] as it is in other Anglo-Saxon countries, he said, although he also pointed out that last month, Britain extradited Serb Milan Spanovic to Croatia, where he had been convicted of war crimes in absentia.

Pancic told media that he disagreed with the Australian court’s finding that as a Serb, Vasiljkovic would face prejudice if he were to be tried in Croatia.

“This is not a matter of some small criminal; it is about one of the main commanders under whom some of the most terrible crimes took place,” he said.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in Zagreb.
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