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

The Start of the Dokmanovic Trial

Tribunal Update 60: Last Week in The Hague (January 19-25, 1998)

Perhaps the most infamous crime in the Yugoslav wars, the mass execution of at least 200 people on the Ovcara farm near Vukovar, Croatia, took place on November 20, 1991.

However, only one of the four accused - former President of the Municipality of Vukovar Slavko Dokmanovic - was present. The Yugoslav authorities refuse to extradite the three other officers of the former JNA - Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancaninwho are also accused of the Ovcara massacre.

The presiding judge in Dokmanovic's trial is Antonio Cassese from Italy, while judges Richard May from Great Britain and Florence Mumba from Zambia are also sitting.

In his opening address Niemann described Dokmanovic as the 'chief executive authority in the municipality' at the time of the crime. The indictment charges him with participating in heavy beatings of patients and other inmates who were taken from the Vukovar hospital on November 20, held in the JNA military barracks for a certain period of time, and then transported to Ovcara. On the same evening, at least 200 were shot or killed by other means on the farm.

Although he is not charged with taking part in the killing Niemann deems that Dokmanovic was involved in the preparations for the mass execution, and holds him responsible for not having prevented that crime, when in a position to do so.

According to the prosecution, Dokmanovic 'knew what the purpose of the entire scheme was and by his actions and presence expressed his willingness to be associated with and to contribute to this overall aim'. Niemann described the outcome of the operation by the JNA members and their paramilitary allies, as 'a monstrous atrocity which invokes memories of the worst outrages of WW2', adding that 'nothing will ever justify this contemptible abomination'.

At the beginning of the trial the prosecution announced that the few survivors of the 200 people taken from the Vukovar hospital that night will testify before the court over the upcoming months and weeks. Seven were released from the hangar in Ovcara following the intervention of their acquaintances amongst Serbian soldiers.

Before their release they were subjected to serious physical and psychological abuse and the prosecution claims that all those released were aware of what awaited those who remained in the hangar. This must also have been clear to Dokmanovic.

According to the prosecution three witnesses will confirm that not only was Dokmanovic in the hangar during the beatings (which caused the death of at least two inmates) but he also 'acted in such a way as to convey the impression that he was the person in charge of the operation'.

The only survivor of the 200 inmates driven in groups of ten to 20 people from the hangar to the nearby execution site will also appear before the court. He managed to jump out unnoticed from the truck. The forensic experts who participated in the exhumation of the mass grave in Ovcara and the identification of the bodies found there will also testify before the court.

The first prosecution witness was Dr Mark Crawford Wheeler, Head of Division of Humanities at the University of Derby and a well-known teacher of the history of the Southern Slavs. In the last four years, Dr Wheeler has taken part in a number of UN and NGO projects in former Yugoslavia and also acted as the director of IWPR's Bosnia Election Project. According to general assessments, his was the best and most effective expert-witness testimony about the history and the causes of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia thus far.

Even one of Dokmanovic's defenders admitted to journalists that 'the man (Dr Wheeler) is right', adding, however, that he would have to dispute Dr Wheeler's arguments because 'I have to return to Belgrade'.

The prosecution need Dr Wheeler's testimony to support its argument on the international character of the war in Croatia. This must be proved, so that the acts for which the defendant is being tried can be qualified as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

According to Dr Wheeler, the former Yugoslavia fell victim to the insatiable ambitions of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who was eager to expand his personal power, as well as the 'colossal mistakes' of Croatia 's President Franjo Tudjman.

Milosevic was the 'first secessionist' of the former Yugoslavia, said Dr Wheeler, 'the one who was the first to start its break-up... whilst claiming that he was actually defending it!' In a political sense, Dr Wheeler said, Milosevic 'was and has remained an opportunist, of the highest rank' who 'in the vacuum of belief' after the demise of communism 'embraced nationalism as a new faith'.

Serbs outside of Serbia served him only as an 'instrument for expanding his personal power'. When, under Croat attack in August 1995, the entity known as Republika Srpska Krajina was recaptured, Milosevic 'did not even move his finger to defend his people'.

On the other hand, Dr Wheeler continued, Tudjman a 'second-rate historian', made a 'horrific, colossal mistake' when he erased the Serbian people from the Constitution and reduced it to an 'ordinary minority'. This would not be so significant in other countries, but in Yugoslavia, this was 'something that Serbs in Croatia perceived as an insult and a possible threat'.

Thus Tudjman served the 'propaganda of hatred which had for a long time been stirred up from Belgrade', whose media were the 'main instrument of alarming and intimidating the Serbs outside Serbia'. At the same time, the Croatian president revived the Serb memories of the atrocities under the Ustashi regime, which, Dr Wheeler said, 'conducted a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing' during the WW2.

On the subject of the time and place of Dokmanovic's crime, Dr Wheeler pointed out that the Serbs - owing to great superiority of the JNA in men and arms 'won the battle for Vukovar but lost the war' in November 1991. Primarily they lost the propaganda war, in which they had been rather successful up until then (Tudjman's regime had aroused more world suspicion). After the destruction of Vukovar, however, Croats became the 'good guys' and the Serbs the 'bad guys', an image which endured until the end of the war in Bosnia.

Under cross examination, Toma Fila of the defence asked Dr Wheeler to whom the JNA belonged at the time of the fighting for Vukovar. Dr Wheeler replied that it was an army without a state. When it was founded, the JNA, according to Dr Wheeler, was 'the army of the Communist Party' and in 1991, it 'sought a new state which it would serve, since the old one had disappeared'.

On the third day of the trial, the prosecution summoned two witnesses from Ilok, a small town in the municipality of Vukovar. Some 12-15,000 people - the Croat and non-Serb population of Ilok, plus refugees from nearby Croat villages - were 'voluntarily' moved from the town on October 17, 1991, a month before the fall of Vukovar. Before the move, the town was under the siege from cannon fire, tanks and JNA soldiers, who controlled the town's electricity and water supply, as well as blocking the entrance to and exits out of Ilok.

In order to qualify the massacre in Ovcara as a crime against humanity, the prosecution must prove that it was part of a 'widespread or systematic attack against civilian population'. The two witnesses were called for this purpose and they served the prosecution in two ways. First, they gave an indication of the wider context of the attack on the civilian population. Secondly, both witnesses identified Dokmanovic. Both of them knew the accused personally as the president of the municipality of Vukovar, and both identified him before the court. The last time they had seen him had been on the eve of and then during the evacuation of Ilok, on October 16 and 17, 1991. He had been in uniform and holding a position which pointed to his 'superior authority'.

The trial of Slavko Dokmanovic was interrupted after its first three days and will continue on February 2, 1998.