Veterans Unhappy Over Spanovic Verdict

Croatian unease about Serbian war criminal's short sentence and immediate release.

Veterans Unhappy Over Spanovic Verdict

Croatian unease about Serbian war criminal's short sentence and immediate release.

War veterans here have expressed their dissatisfaction with the release of convicted Serbian war criminal Milan Spanovic immediately after a reduced sentence for wartime abuses was handed out by a local Croatian court.

Spanovic, 47, an ethnic Serb from Glina, a town 60 kilometres from Croatian capital Zagreb, was found guilty on November 13 of involvement in attacks on two Croatian villages in 1991 and sentenced to three years and five months in prison. But this term expired just one day after his conviction, due to time served awaiting trial in Britain and Croatia.

"No one normal can understand his low sentence and his release," said Ivan Pandza, president of the Zagreb branch of the Croatian Disabled Homeland War Veterans Association, HVIDRA. He says he was speaking in a personal capacity, as HVIDRA declined to comment officially.

A previous trial, held in absentia in 1993, had seen Spanovic sentenced to 20 years in jail for crimes committed in 1991 against Croatian civilians in the villages of Maja and Svracica in the Glina area.

The crimes occurred at the beginning of Croatia's 1991-1995 war of independence, which erupted following the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. During the Croatian conflict, the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, and local Serb paramilitary forces wrested one third of Croatian territory from Zagreb’s control.

Spanovic fled to Britain in 1998 and spent eight years living in Carshalton in Surrey, before being arrested in October 2006 for suspected theft. British police discovered that Croatian authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest, and the process to extradite him began.

He was extradited to Croatia on August 19 this year, and the unchanged indictment from 1993 was heard at the trial, which began on October 5.

Giving evidence, witnesses described how Serbian paramilitaries had surrounded and attacked villages including Maja and Svracica, shooting and setting fire to houses and looting property.

One witness, Stjepan Fabac, pointed at Spanovic and said that he was among the worst leading the assault and robbery. When he could not remember some details and names, Fabac said, "Spanovic could tell it, if he is a man."

While Spanovic admitted that he had participated in the attacks and expressed deep remorse and regret for his actions, he argued that he had not committed war crimes and pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Explaining the verdict, Judge Snjezana Mrkoci said that the 1991 judgement, in which Spanovic was sentenced alongside 18 other co-accused, had not been an honourable moment for Croatian justice.

Acknowledging that the original trial had heard from only one witness and that the defence lawyer had supported the indictment, Judge Mrkoci said this had been due to the short period of time that had elapsed since the war, "which influenced the peoples' minds".

However, Judge Mrkoci continued, "It is unquestionably proved during the evidence procedure that the accused has participated in attacks on villages close to Glina, that he participated in the destruction, shelling and arson of Croat houses, deportation of powerless civilians and looting."

Since there had been no material evidence, and the court had relied on verbal witness testimonial, in this case the minimum term of five years would not be applied and a reduced sentence would be given, the judge said.

The Spanovic family expressed their relief at the verdict and announced their intention to return to the UK.

Vesna Terselic, the head of Documenta, an NGO which records the events of the war and monitors war crimes proceedings, said that they were satisfied with what had been a "coherent" verdict.

But while the war veterans' association declined to comment officially, individually members expressed concern at the sentence.

Pandza noted that Croatian courts had handed out harsher sentences to Croatian soldiers, pointing to the seven-year term given to former Croatian general Mirko Norac in 2003 for failing to stop his soldiers torturing and killing Serbs during the war. Norac was already serving a 12-year sentence for war crimes.

With Croatia working towards future European Union membership, some claimed that both the way the Spanovic case was handled - and the lack of an official response from HVIDRA itself - was down to a desire to curry favour with the EU.

Stjepan Lugaric, from the HVIDRA branch in Sisak, expressed "deep disappointment about the verdict".

He said he had heard only negative comments on the verdict from members of his association, as well from other citizens in Sisak area. "You can imagine what the comments are," he said. "Everyone is disappointed."

Lugaric also pointed to a lack of media coverage on the verdict, blaming a desire to forget the past and focus on prospective EU membership.

"Maybe because it is a different time now," he said.

"How can I be satisfied? I think that Croatian judiciary didn't prepare itself well for the case. The initial sentence [of 20 years in prison] would be more suitable," said Dragutin Tomasic, from the Sisak branch of HVIDRA.

"This verdict is shameful. It shows that the state's prosecution and judges didn't make efforts to collect more evidence about Spanovic's criminal acts," said Josip Djakic, the national head of HVIDRA.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.
Balkans, Croatia
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