Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbian Judiciary Facing Key Test

Ovcara trial will determine if the Serbian judges are up to the task of prosecuting war crimes fairly.
By Milanka Saponja

Much was at stake for Serbia when six Serbs indicted for war crimes committed in Vukovar in 1991 went on trial in Belgrade this week.


The indictees - Miroljub Vujovic, Stanko Vujanovic, Jovica Peric, Ivan Atanasijevic, Predrag Madzarac and Milan Vojnovic - are all former members of Vukovar’s Territorial Defence Forces. They are accused of taking some 192 Croatian prisoners of war from the Vukovar hospital and executing them at the Ovcara pig farm on the night of November 20-21, 1991.


Two others were initially indicted along with the six. One has become a witness. Another, Mirko Vojinovic, died shortly before the trial began due to injuries he sustained from jumping out a window in an apparent suicide attempt.


To date, Serbia has held nine war crimes trials, but this is the first case involving Serb atrocities committed against Croats. It will not only challenge the Serbian public to face the litany of crimes that were committed in its name, but also be a crucial test to determine if the Serbian judiciary is up to the task of prosecuting war crimes fairly.


The Hague tribunal, which is slated to wrap up its proceedings by 2010, has announced that it plans to focus its efforts only on high-ranking perpetrators and that it expects local courts to try lower-level suspects.


The Serbian government is keen to do all that it can to aid the tribunal in its completion strategy because it dovetails nicely with its long-standing demand that Serbian suspects be tried on Serbian soil.


“This case was launched [by a Serbian court] and I think it is very good for Serbia, for the truth and for something that is a basic need in this region after the tragic wars,” said Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, addressing the press for the first time since he was appointed premier earlier this month.


However, critics allege that Kostunica and his government are not motivated by a sincere desire to see that war crimes suspects are punished, but rather to ensure that no more cases are handled by the UN tribunal, which it considers to be an anti-Serb institution.


Numerous international watchdog organisations, including local NGOs and the OSCE, will be watching closely to see how the proceedings unfold and whether they meet international standards of justice - and the tribunal will be paying close attention as well.


“We are carefully following the trial in the preparation of which the Serbian judiciary bodies had help from the Hague tribunal. We hope the trial will be conducted under the highest standards,” said Jim Landale, the tribunal’s spokesman.


The trial began with all six of the accused sitting behind bullet-proof glass and flanked by security guards.


During three days of hearings, they all pleaded not guilty.


Some claimed that they were not at the Ovcara farm on that fateful day in November 1991, and that they were victims of mistaken identity.


Others alleged that they were indeed at the farm, but that they had gone there to enquire about Croatian friends and relatives who were taken prisoner and that they were not involved in the murder.


One indictee pointed the finger at former head of Yugoslavia’s military intelligence service, Aleksander Vasiljevic.


However, the spokesman for the prosecution, Bruno Vekaric, said he was confident that prosecutors would prove that the accused are guilty.


Vakaric said he was also sure that the proceedings would show the world that Serbia’s judiciary was competent to hear such cases.


“The prosecution has collected a lot of firm evidence of the guilt of the indicted and the Serbian judiciary will prove itself worthy of trial as complex as these,” he told IWPR.


Preparations for the trial began last May when, in accordance with the tribunal’s completion strategy, Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte handed over eight boxes of evidence about crimes in Ovcara to the Belgrade authorities.


Two months later, in July, the Serbian parliament voted to adopt a special law on war crime trials. Soon thereafter, Belgrade set up a special court, a prosecutor’s office and a special police unit to investigate and hear cases.


At the same time, local and international NGOs, as well as various western governments provided special training in international humanitarian law for judges, prosecutors, police inspectors and lawyers.


Since then the Serbian authorities have working intensively on the Ovcara case. In addition to the eight already indicted, an additional 16 are under investigation.


Legal experts are cautious in drawing conclusions on the trial because it has just started.


Jovan Nicic, a legal analyst from the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, said he thought there was a general lack of political will among state officials to try everyone guilty of the crime.


He pointed out that the indictment is too narrow in scope, only implicating Vukovar’s Territorial Defence units and the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, which he believes is culpable as well. (Indeed, three JNA officers Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic have been indicted by the Hague tribunal and are awaiting trial).


However, Nicic said there were some promising developments regarding the trial as well.


For example, he said he found it encouraging that the court requested legal assistance from Croatia, asking Zagreb for records of the Ovcara and nearby Grabovo exhumations, which were conducted after Serb forces withdrew from the region in 1995.


Several other observers also commended the judges’ announcement that they wanted witnesses from Croatia to testify at the trial.


The prosecution has proposed 50 witnesses, all from Serbia, but the judges said that it was essential for witnesses from Croatia, particularly the immediate family of the victims and others who might have been witnesses to the atrocities, to appear in court.


Pointing out the difficulties of Croatian witnesses traveling to Belgrade, the prosecution said it would consider the possibility of organising testimony via video link.


Presiding judge Vesko Krstajic said that he was also making efforts through the Hague tribunal and foreign diplomats to facilitate the appearances of some Croatian witnesses.


Before proceedings adjourned, defence lawyers requested that all of their defendants be freed. The judges denied their request and ordered that the accused remain in custody.


The trial has been scheduled to resume on April 27.


Milanka Saponja Hadzic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.


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