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Sparks May Fly at Glavas Trial

The forthcoming trial could prove highly controversial if the investigative phase of the case is anything to go by.
By Drago Hedl
The upcoming trial of Branimir Glavas, a retired Croatian army general and former mayor of the eastern city of Osijek, could be a real test of Croatia’s judiciary, given the incident-packed nature of the investigation into his alleged crimes.



Over the last few weeks, two indictments were issued against Glavas for war crimes committed against Serb civilians in Osijek at the beginning of the 1991-95 war in Croatia. It was the culmination of an investigation, lasting almost two years, which was fraught with problems.



Ever since Glavas was first implicated in war crimes in June 2005, his case was surrounded by controversy and highlighted all weaknesses of the Croatia’s judicial system.



Glavas has been indicted for two separate crimes, but they both involve the execution of Serb civilians in Osijek, which was besieged by Serb forces at the beginning of the Croatian war.



At that time, Glavas was secretary of the Territorial Defence, a civilian post, but he soon formed his own military unit. During the war, and especially after it ended, he became one of the most powerful men in Croatia, thanks to his role in Osijek’s defence.



The fact that he was one of the founders of Croatia’s ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and that he was very close to the country’s first president, the late Franjo Tudjman, meant that he was untouchable. Although the independent media began linking Glavas to war crimes years ago, his political connections protected him from any investigation into those allegations.



Only in mid 2005, did Glavas begin to look vulnerable. One member of his unit, Krunoslav Fehir, who was only 16 years old at the time of the crimes Glavas is accused of - decided to speak publicly about the executions of Serb civilians in Osijek. He first told the state prosecutor and later this reporter that Glavas ordered the arrest, interrogation and torture of Serb civilians in garages adjacent to Glavas’s military headquarters.



Fehir said those interrogations were very cruel and the civilians were forced to drink acid from discarded car batteries. Forensic investigation confirmed Fehir’s claims that at least two persons were killed this way.



“Glavas ordered us to torture them. He told us they were Serb terrorists, although they didn’t look like terrorists to me. I was present when he ordered the murder of Djordje Petkovic, one of the persons who was interrogated in those garages,” Fehir, who will be a key witness in Glavas’s trial, told this reporter in June 2005.



The second indictment accuses Glavas of ordering the arrest and execution of Serb civilians who were taken to the basement of a house in the centre of Osijek, where they were interrogated and tortured, and later executed on the banks of the Drava River. Before they were shot in the head, their hands and mouths were taped. Miraculously, one of the victims, who had been shot in the head twice, survived.

This person will be another key witness in the case.



This indictment alleges that Glavas, together with other six co-accused, was responsible for the murder of at least ten people.



During his time as mayor of Osijek, Glavas built a whole network of loyalists who held key positions in the police force and judiciary - which is why the Zagreb authorities had to appoint a new police chief for Osijek to investigate the Glavas case.



Vladimir Faber, believed to be one of the best investigators in Croatia, takes credit for the investigation that led to the two indictments against Glavas. Five days after the second indictment was issued on May 9 last year, Faber was sent back to Zagreb.



Glavas and his lawyers have claimed all along that the investigation, the indictments and the upcoming trial are politically motivated, prompted by Glavas’s split from the HDZ in 2005.



“But the reality is actually quite different,” said Goran Flauder, one of the journalists who investigated Glavas’s alleged role in war crimes. “Glavas was protected by those in power as long as he was in HDZ, and that’s why the investigation against him was not possible. Now that he’s not under the wings of the ruling party, he’s not protected any more and the facts no one dared to look into for years have finally surfaced.”



The investigative phase of his case has been dogged by controversy.



On several occasions, the investigative judge turned down the prosecution's requests to put Glavas behind tha bars while enquiries were being made. When he was finally detained in October last year, he went on a hunger strike. After his health started deteriorating, the judge set a precedent by releasing Glavas until his health improved and temporarily halting the investigation.



Glavas was treated in hospital for a few months and then allowed to go home. He was rearrested on April 17, but not before again denouncing the state leadership for allegedly setting him up. And once behind bars, he resumed his hunger strike,



A renowned Zagreb lawyer, Cedo Prodanovic, who has defended war crimes suspects at the Hague tribunal, said it was important that the judiciary ignores his latest protest.



“I hope this doesn't end in the same way as the previous hunger strike. I believe people in the judiciary are aware that if they gave in to Glavas's demands this time, it would undermine the rule of law in this country,” he said.



Meanwhile, the two indictments against Glavas have been merged into one. The trial should start this summer or in the autumn at the latest and will take place at the Zagreb County Court.



Drago Hedl is an IWPR contributor based in Osijek.

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