Stanisic Trial to Restart Soon

Accused deemed fit by UN medical officer to participate in proceedings under certain conditions.

Stanisic Trial to Restart Soon

Accused deemed fit by UN medical officer to participate in proceedings under certain conditions.

Saturday, 6 June, 2009
Judges hearing the case of two former Serbian security officials at the Hague tribunal are on the verge of setting a date for their trial to restart amid lingering concerns about the health of one of the defendants.

The trial chamber has decided to continue with the delayed proceedings after the United Nations prison’s reporting medical officer Dr Michael Eekhof said in a report of June 2 that “[Jovica Stanisic’s] general condition has improved slightly”.

“Although his state of mind is depressed, in my opinion, as general practitioner, there are no evident psychiatric reasons preventing him participating in proceedings,” wrote Eekhof in his report.

In the document, Eekhof also said that the defendant was fit to participate in proceedings for up to an hour in the bed in the video-conference room.

Due to ongoing medical problems, Stanisic failed to appear at a hearing in court again this week or to follow proceedings via a video link set up for him from the UN prison where he is being held as final preparations were made in The Hague for his war crimes trial to begin again.

The defendant had also failed to show up two weeks ago when a hearing was held after he was recalled from provisional release in Serbia where he had been receiving medical treatment.

Stanisic’s poor health brought his trial – and that of his former deputy, Franko Simatovic – to a halt only two weeks into proceedings, on May 16, 2008, when Stanisic was unable to attend court hearings or watch proceedings via the UN prison video link.

He was suffering from a number of ailments including osteoporosis, kidney stones, pouchitis and depression and had refused to give up his right to be present during trial hearings.

This week, however, he waived his right to be present at the pre-trial conference held between the judges, the prosecution and both defence teams.

Stanisic was head of Serbian state security, DB, between December 1991 and October 1998 and is standing trial alongside Simatovic, also known as Frenki, who was the commander of the DB’s special operations unit between 1991 and 1995.

According to the prosecution’s indictment, both men are responsible for atrocities during the war in the former Yugoslavia which led to “the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina”.

Both defendants have pleaded not guilty at the Hague tribunal to charges, which include murder, persecution, forced deportation and other inhumane acts.

Prosecutors allege the pair provided logistical support for Serb paramilitary units – including Arkan’s Tigers, the Red Berets, the Scorpions and Martic’s militia – which committed crimes against non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

Judges have been monitoring Stanisic’s health since the trial was suspended, after granting both defendants provisional release on May 26, 2008, so that Stanisic could receive medical treatment in Belgrade.

On April 24 this year, judges decided that the case could get under way again, ruling that they were “satisfied that Mr Stanisic is able to endure the rigours of a trial and to effectively participate in the trial provided that accommodating measures are introduced”.

Judges have decided to hold hearings just two days a week and if the defendant is unable to attend court then he is able to follow proceedings via video link from the UN prison.

He will be able to communicate with his legal team in the courtroom via a telephone line from his bedside. The hearings will also take place in the afternoon to allow for Stanisic to undergo a medical examination, if required, during the morning.

This week, judges confirmed that the trial would start in the coming weeks as soon as a firm schedule is set by the court.

Eekhof joined the in-court preparations this week via the video link from the UN prison to discuss his latest medical report with the judges and the parties.

Presiding judge Alphons Orie asked Eekhof to explain his conclusions about the length of time that Stanisic would be able to follow proceedings via the video link.

“When talking about his health, he cannot hold normal conversations [for] more than an hour,” said Eekhof.

Eekhof also said that Stanisic was unable to sit up for more than ten minutes at a time due to his back pain. However, he confirmed that this problem was “improving slowly” and that Stanisic was “getting more mobile”.

Eekhof also explained that Stanisic had twice refused physiotherapy treatment that could help his back.

“He has been lying so long that he needs to be more active in the long term,” he told Judge Alphons Orie, confirming that the defendant has said he does not want to receive physiotherapy.

“He has been transported to hospital but it is always quite a painful experience for him, which I do believe.”

Judge Orie asked if Eekhof’s conclusions about the level of pain experienced by Stanisic were based only on what the defendant told him.

“That’s what I have to rely on,” said Eekhof, pointing to the subjective nature of a patient’s pain.

When questioned further by prosecutor Dermot Groome, Eekhof confirmed that Stanisic was taking medication for the pain and that his assessment of his ability to sit up and follow proceedings was based on his condition following such treatment.

Although the court had not confirmed its trial schedule, the prosecution informed the chamber that it was ready to give their opening statement when called upon to do so.

“The opening statement is prepared. We are ready to give that whenever [the chamber decides on a date],” Groome told the court.

However, he requested that the court give them two weeks’ notice to finalise arrangements to bring witnesses to The Hague.

Judges also delivered a ruling this week allowing prosecutors to bring additional evidence to the trial which came into their hands earlier this year.

The evidence includes a notebook which, noted Judge Orie, appears to belong to the Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic. Mladic is still on the run 14 years after he was charged at the tribunal with masterminding some of the most horrific acts of the war, including the 1995 Srebrenica genocide when almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred.

According to prosecutors, the notebook contains entries that refer to Stanisic’s “attendance at certain meetings between January 27, 1995, and September 5, 1995, all relating to military operations of the Yugoslav Army ,VJ, and the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1995”.

They said the notebook was seized during a raid – authorised by the war crimes court in Belgrade – on the house of Mladic’s wife, Bosiljka Mladic, on December 4, 2008.

Other evidence brought in included documents seized from Serbia’s ministry of foreign affairs in June 2008. Prosecutors say that these “provide important background information [to]… the legal and factual situation in terms of the various special units operating during the war in Croatia and in [Bosnia]”.

The prosecution will also be allowed to submit a transcript of intercepted communication between Stanisic and ex-Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

It contends that this “provides clear evidence of the close relationship and coordination” between Karadzic and Stanisic.

Karadzic himself is currently in custody in The Hague awaiting trial on war crimes charges which include two counts of genocide.

A combat report which prosecutors say relates to Stanisic’s role and that of the Serbian interior ministry, MUP, in the conflict in Bosnia has also been added to their case.

The defence argued that producing the evidence at such a late stage would deny them the opportunity to mount a defence.

However, judges ruled that prosecutors could present the evidence at trial though not within the first six weeks of hearings in order to allow Stanisic’s lawyers enough time to conduct their own research around the documents.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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