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

Six Croatians Indicted for War Crimes

Human rights groups say “better late than never”, but veterans’ associations maintain no crimes were committed.
By Goran Jungvirth
Six Croatian ex-military police were this week indicted by Zagreb prosecutors for war crimes committed in the Pakrac region - a move welcomed by human rights NGOs and opposed by veterans’ associations.

The former officers are charged with the murder of 16 Serb civilians in 1991 near the town of Pakrac, which formed a dividing line between Croatian and Serbian forces during the 1991-95 war.

Damir Kufner and Dario Simic were arrested a month ago. Zeljko Tutic, Tomislav Poletto and Ante Ivezic were detained two weeks later, while Pavle Vancas was apprehended last week.

The indictment states that members of Kufner and Simic’s units entered Serbian houses, claiming to be searching for weapons. However, when they failed to find any, they nevertheless seized the occupants by force.

The men, who were attached to the 76th battalion of the Croatian National Guard, ZNG, are accused of then holding civilians captive in an improvised prison in the village of Ribnjak.

They are charged with subjecting the prisoners to physical and psychological abuse before killing them by the side of fish ponds, and throwing the bodies into the water. Media reports have suggested that guards at the ponds would often find bodies washed up on the banks.

Evidence shows that while Croatian police visited the scene of the crimes in 1991, made reports and filed indictments, these were never acted upon.

The arrests are based on evidence originally gathered by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, during its investigation of Tomislav Mercep, the commander of reservist police units.

Although he was never indicted by this court, the tribunal forwarded its findings to Croatia’s state attorney.

“For a few years, ICTY prosecutors have been delivering documents to local prosecutors in the former Yugoslavia as part of regular cooperation,” said Olga Kavran, a spokesperson for the tribunal. “Local prosecutors then continue the investigation until they believe they have enough evidence to issue an indictment.”

The documents concerned crimes against Serbs in the Vukovar and Pakrac regions committed by members of ministry of internal affairs, MUP, reservists under Mercep’s command. However, the 76th battalion was a part of ZNG and later the Croatian army – and so not under his command.

Five members of Mercep’s unit - Munib Suljic, Sinisa Rimac, Igor Mikola, Miro Bajramovic and Branko Saric - have already been convicted for other crimes in the Pakrac area.

War veterans say the six former members of the military police arrested recently are not guilty.

The powerful Croatian Disabled Homeland War Veterans Association, HVIDRA, protested against the latest indictment, producing a joint statement of support signed by ten veterans’ associations in the region.

“Our boys haven’t killed Serb civilians. They are indicted for something they didn’t do,” Stipan Grgic, the local HVIDRA president, told a news conference.

But Vesna Terselic, head of the Documenta NGO, said the association was placing pressure on potential witnesses. “People already find it hard to testify because of the pressured environment in which they live,” Terselic told IWPR.

Human rights NGOs hope that this case might give witnesses of other war crimes the confidence to come forward.

Terselic added that the government was also to blame for Croatia’s deficiencies in confronting the past, citing the case of the powerful politician Branimir Glavas as an example.

Parliament allowed him to be released from custody while his six co-defendants remain in detention during their trial.

“But it’s not just that - [Glavas] was elected to the parliamentary board for human and minority rights, despite being on trial for war crimes,” added Terselic.

Terselic said there was room for optimism, “There are some changes for the better and this latest investigation confirms it.”

However, human rights experts are still unsatisfied with the time it takes to mount prosecutions, although they are pleased that crimes are not being forgotten.

“Better late than never,” Professor Zarko Puhovski, a prominent member of Croatian Helsinki Committee, told IWPR.

Puhovski said he expected the proceedings would lead to a reexamination of Mercep’s actions. However, he does not expect the commander to face any legal action, because he suffered a stroke last year.

“He is currently too ill to attend any trial,” he said.

Nevertheless, Puhovski said it was important that the case should demonstrate how senior military officials helped create the conditions in which war crimes could occur.

“Most of the war crimes in that period happened outside of official control. But some of them occurred when the police officers were exposed to speeches of hate, after which they went and committed crimes.”

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist in Zagreb.

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