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Slavko Dokmanovic's Death

Tribunal Update 83: Last Week in The Hague (29 June-4 July 1998)

The former mayor of Vukovar, who was accused of complicity in the killing of at least 200 people at the Ovcara farm, struggled through the five months of trial, which began on 19 January and ended on 25 June this year.

On Monday, 29 June, the Tribunal officially announced that the accused Slavko Dokmanovic was found dead, "hanging behind the door of his cell."

The judges' verdict in his case had been announced for 7 July. The curt press release by the Tribunal's registry also said that Dokmanovic "had been seen by the detention unit's physician" on Sunday evening and that upon the physician's advice "the light in Dokmanovic's cell was left on and he was monitored every 30 minutes."

The check at approximately 11:30 p.m. found nothing unusual, but during the next inspection, at 12:00 p.m., a guard found Dokmanovic's motionless body in the cell. The Tribunal and the Dutch police have launched separate investigations into the circumstances surrounding Dokmanovic's death.

Even to non-experts following the trial, it had been clear that Dokmanovic was in a state of severe depression and was on strong sedatives. He sat through the trial absentmindedly, and, one would say, with a lack of interest, seldom raising his eyes from the table in front of him.

Ending his testimony in late May, Dokmanovic thanked the judges for the manner in which they had conducted the proceedings and the prison staff for their humane treatment, concluding ominously: "Whatever your decision, you should know that you have a broken man before you."

The psychological state of the accused was brought up in the concluding phase of the trial. Psychologists from Belgrade, appearing as the defense's experts, maintained that Dokmanovic's mental state following the arrest in no way corresponded to his alleged conduct on 20 November 1991, when Dokmanovic - according to the indictment - took part in the beating of several detainees awaiting execution at the Ovcara farm.

The British and Dutch psychologists, who testified for the prosecutor, claimed that conclusions about one's conduct six and a half years ago cannot be drawn from one's present neurotic character. They stressed that on the fatal 20 November 1991 in Vukovar, group - rather than normal - behavior was at work and that individuals are much more likely to commit crimes under the influence of a group.

The concluding phase of the trial, in which the prosecutor disputed the evidence presented by the defense, did not unfold favorably for the accused (see Tribunal Update 81). The prosecutor managed to, if not refute, then at least seriously bring into question the fundamental piece of evidence on which the Belgrade lawyer Toma Fila built his client's defense.

The video tape recording the movement of Dokmanovic and his guests from Serbia on that critical day was supposed to provide Dokmanovic with a rock-solid alibi. But, with the assistance of various experts, which included one of the world's leading experts in silviculture who played a particularly significant role by "positively identifying" several poplar, mulberry, and walnut trees on the alibi video tape, the prosecutor managed to bring into question both the authenticity of the tape and the credibility of the five defense witnesses who had tried to confirm Dokmanovic's alibi before the court.

The way in which Trial Chamber II (Judge Antonio Cassese presiding in this case) would have assessed the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defense will, however, remain a secret. Following the death of the accused, the Tribunal declared his case closed and said that there will be no verdict, since a dead man cannot be tried.

The Ovcara massacre case will nonetheless remain open, because the indictment also names three former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officers, Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Miroslav Radic, for complicity in the crime.

Moreover, the evidence presented in the Dokmanovic trial could be used in their trials, that is, if and when they are brought to justice (the prosecutor filed a request in that respect even before the beginning of the Dokmanovic trial).

Even though he holds the Tribunal responsible for failing to undertake all necessary measures to prevent Dokmanovic's suicide, Fila said last week that his client had had "an absolutely fair trail" and that the rights of the accused were fully respected, not only before the court but in prison as well. With a caveat "that it may not be appropriate, coming from a defense counsel," Fila paid similar compliments to the prosecution.

At a press conference in The Hague on Friday, Fila revealed certain details about the psychological state of Slavko Dokmanovic and the events that had preceded his death. He described his last meeting with his client, in the afternoon of 26 June, a day after the end of the trial. "I found a completely lost man," Fila said.

He described how Dokmanovic did not believe him that the trial was over and was convinced that "new witnesses with evidence against him and his family would arrive on a special flight" from Belgrade on the following Monday (29 June). He also claimed that other inmates at the UN Detention Unit had been watching video tapes with compromising material against his family, so he demanded from Fila to swear that he would protect his family from persecution in Serbia.

A day earlier, Fila revealed, Dokmanovic showed up in a sweater at the last hearing (during which the prosecution and the defense presented their closing statements) explaining that he was doing so as a sign of protest, because he was convinced that his family had been physically liquidated the night before in Serbia.

Following his last meeting with Dokmanovic, Fila sent fax messages to the Tribunal and to the UN Detention Unit in which he reminded the persons in charge of the history of his client's psychological problems and warned them of the possibility of suicide. After that, Fila left for Belgrade, where he was woken up at 2 a.m. on Monday with the information that his client had been found dead.

Fila said he called the press conference because the Tribunal had not publicly stated that it was warned of the possibility of Dokmanovic's suicide, and because neither the defense nor the family of the accused had received any other information about the causes of death (up to that moment), except for the information that Dokmanovic was "found dead." That is the reason, Fila said, it is not surprising that "all sorts of gibberish" about the circumstances of Dokmanovic's death were circulating in Yugoslavia.

"If it was a suicide - and it probably was - then it was a decision of a mentally ill man," Fila stated. He attributed his client's psychological problems to what he called the "illegal way" in which Dokmanovic was arrested in a joint operation of the Tribunal's investigators and United Nations force in eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) in June last year.

After being allowed to visit the cell in which his client was found dead, Fila concluded that Dokmanovic had most probably "hanged himself with his own tie, tied to the hinge of the wardrobe door." Fila also disclosed that Dokmanovic had had a serious psychological crisis back in October, which Vera Petrovic, a Belgrade psychiatrist, diagnosed as "prison psychosis."

In such a state, Fila continued, Dokmanovic had set his cell on fire, after which he was placed under continuous monitoring and two video cameras were installed in his cell. The therapy was successful, however, and, already in November, Dokmanovic began to cooperate both with his defense and with the prosecution, which the prosecutor took into account as a mitigating circumstance in his closing statement.

According to Fila, all 27 inmates from the UN Detention Unit - Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks - signed a telegram of condolences for Dokmanovic's family and asked Fila to buy a wreath in their name bearing the inscription: "To our Slavko, from all prisoners of The Hague."

The process of inter-ethnic reconciliation apparently works faster behind bars.

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