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Strugar Jailed for Dubrovnik Attack

One chapter of the Balkan wars closes as tribunal finds JNA general had command responsibility for shelling of historic city.
By Goran Jungvirth

Ageing former Yugoslav army general Pavle Strugar was sentenced to eight years in prison this week for his role in the shelling of the historical Adriatic port of Dubrovnik.


The sentencing marks the end of the Hague tribunal's interest in one of the most infamous episodes of the war, leaving the rest of Dubrovnik’s wartime history to be addressed by historians rather than criminal lawyers.


The images of plumes of black smoke rising over the heart of the medieval city grasped the world's attention in the autumn of 1991, and remain etched in the minds of many who watched the drama unfold on their TV screens.


Strugar, 71, is the highest ranking of three former Yugoslav army, or JNA, officers indicted for a single episode of the three-month siege – an attack on civilians in the town’s historical centre on December 6, 1991 and the destruction and damage it caused.


Of the remaining two indictees, navy admiral Miodrag Jokic has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to seven years in prison. And the tribunal is likely to transfer the case of artillery commander Vladimir Kovacevic – who has been confined to a psychiatric institution for treatment – to the recently founded war crimes court in Belgrade.


The tribunal found Strugar guilty of two out of the six counts included in the indictment against him – attacks on civilians and the destruction of historic monuments. Although the court confirmed that at least two civilians were killed and six others wounded in the shelling, Strugar was acquitted of the more serious charges of murder and cruel treatment.


Presiding judge Kevin Parker stressed that the judgement and punishment stemmed not from any order issued by the accused, but rather from the fact that he failed to take adequate measures to stop the attack in question or to ensure that those responsible for it were later disciplined – the concept of command rather than individual responsibility.


The siege of Dubrovnik began in October 1991, just a few months after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.


A mediaeval city-state and the heart of the renaissance in the Balkans, Dubrovnik has been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site for more than 25 years. At the time of the attack, between 7,000 and 8,000 people were living in the city's historic old town.


At that time, Strugar held the rank of lieutenant- general and was in command of the Second Operative Group of the JNA, which had been formed especially for the military campaign in the Dubrovnik area.


The court established that, on December 6, troops under Strugar's command launched a concerted push to capture Srdj hill overlooking the very heart of Dubrovnik. In the course of the attack, the judges said, "The full force of JNA artillery and mortars was directed at the city, including the protected historical centre."


This fire, the judgement read, "was not confined to Croatian military targets" – instead, the JNA fired "extensively, deliberately and indiscriminately" on the city. Judges dismissed the investigation later ordered by JNA officers into the incident as a "sham enquiry" that was "an obvious step in deflecting adverse international opinion".


But while the trial chamber concluded that Strugar issued the order to capture Srdj hill, they said that prosecutors had fallen short of proving that he ordered the shelling of the city centre itself.


Throughout the course of the trial, Strugar's defence team offered numerous – and often contrasting – versions of events which they claimed exonerated the general, and presented the attack as an impulsive decision made by the "emotional" Kovacevic.


The court found this version of events to be "entirely false" and ruled that the attack had in fact been planned by the highest JNA officers.


The defence also tried to lay the blame for the shelling on Jokic, who testified as a prosecution witness in the case.


And they even went as far as to attempt to prove that little damage was done to the old town, and that this had in fact been carried out deliberately by Croatian forces in order to attract the attention of the international community.


Finally, they tried to show that if JNA forces did damage the historic centre, this was only a "regrettable consequence" of returning fire that was coming from artillery positions within the old town.


All these interpretations were rejected by the judges, who had earlier also dismissed attempts by the defence to have Strugar proclaimed unfit to stand trial on the basis of a range of illnesses, including post traumatic stress syndrome and vascular dementia.


The defence has already announced that they intend to appeal the court's decision.


Meanwhile, legal experts say the judgement – only the second ever to be handed down that focuses mainly on the destruction of protected cultural monuments – has strengthened jurisprudence surrounding this offence.


"Monuments of culture were protected in international law before this sentence but their protection has now gained in effectiveness," Zagreb University Law Professor Ivo Josipovic, an expert on international law, told IWPR. "Commanders in future conflicts will certainly have to bear this in mind."


During the siege of the city hundreds of shells hit the historical centre. An analysis carried out jointly by UNESCO and the Croatian department for the preservation of monuments of culture showed that in 1991 and 1992, shells hit more than two thirds of all buildings located there. Six properties were burned to the ground.


The Dubrovnik restoration department and UNESCO calculated in 1993 that the cost of repairing the damage would be 9.5 million US dollars. But city restoration department chief Vjekoslav Vierda told IWPR that more than 50 million dollars have already been spent on reconstruction.


Almost fifteen years after the conflict, traces of destruction are still evident in the mountainous area around Dubrovnik, which was the site of constant military operations during the war. And Maja Milovcic of the Dubrovnik tourism office told IWPR that although the city itself has recovered to be counted amongst the top Mediterranean tourist destinations, the number of visitors is now half what it was in the pre-war years.


As far as the Hague tribunal is concerned, this chapter of Balkan history is now closed. During a visit to neighbouring Montenegro this week, Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte confirmed that her office would carry out no more investigations into the case, and that no more indictments would be issued.


The fact that the tribunal only focused on one episode of the conflict in the area has left some Dubrovnik residents with mixed feelings.


While satisfied about the fact that the trial has ended with a guilty verdict, a young resident of Dubrovnik told IWPR in a telephone interview that the narrow scope of the indictment had left some of the city's inhabitants feeling somewhat short-changed.


"It's a shame that Strugar was only sentenced for the shelling of December 6, 1991 and not for the terror [inflicted on] Dubrovnik, which lasted three months," said Niksa Matic, a 28-year old historian who lived through the siege.


The tribunal has already indicted four people in relation to the much longer and more dramatic siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, whose residents were subjected to over three years of systematic shelling and sniping. Of the four indictees, one Bosnian Serb army general Stanislav Galic has been sentenced to 20 years in prison.


Goran Jungvirth is a contributor for Vecernji List newspaper and the Croatian BBC service in Zagreb and The Hague.