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

Vukovar Indictment to Stand

Judges reject bid to have charges relating to the 1991 hospital massacre in Croatia thrown out of court.
Following the completion of the prosecution case against three former members of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, implicated in the executions of prisoners taken from the Vukovar hospital in Croatia on November 20, 1991, judges have ruled that all the charges against them will need to be countered by their lawyers.

The decision sunk a bid by the legal teams representing Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin to have part or all of the indictment thrown out of court on the grounds that not enough evidence had been brought to support it.

It is standard practice for defence teams at the Hague tribunal to have an opportunity to file such a request before embarking on their case so that they do not waste time answering allegations on which the prosecution has brought insufficient evidence.

Addressing the court on June 28, Judge Kevin Parker outlined the evidence which he said could, at least in principle, lead the trial chamber to convict of the men on each of the eight counts in the indictment.

The charges include persecutions, murder and torture. In one of the most notorious episodes of the war in Croatia, non-Serbs were allegedly picked out of crowds gathered at the Vukovar hospital following the fall of the town to the JNA, and at least 264 of them were executed in cold blood.

Through their alleged roles in these events, Mrksic, Radic and Sljivancanin are accused of being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” whose participants included not just JNA soldiers, but also territorial defence units, volunteers and paramilitary units organised by the ultra-nationalist Serb politician Vojislav Seselj.

Prosecutors say Radic was personally involved in selecting non-Serbs from the hospital, and that Sljivancanin directed the selection and distracted hospital staff by calling a meeting while it was going on. All three men are alleged to have been responsible for the forces involved at various stages in the overall operation, and they are also accused of trying to cover up the atrocity afterwards.

While the court has already heard evidence which contradicts some of the potentially incriminating material mentioned during Judge Parker’s ruling on the defence lawyers’ request, he underlined that it was not for the chamber to weigh up all the evidence at this stage in the case.

Since the trial opened in October last year, the court has heard from witnesses including military experts, hospital staff, international observers, other former members of the JNA, and detainees who were taken from the hospital but escaped execution.

Vilim Karlovic, who was a young member of the Croatian National Guard, ZNG, when he was removed from the hospital in November 1991, gave evidence in March. He acknowledged that many of his fellow fighters were at the site when the JNA arrived, but insisted that none were armed. He also testified that the vast majority of passengers in the particular vehicle in which he was taken away were wounded.

Karlovic, and others who survived the experience, also spoke of the abuse of prisoners taken from the hospital while they were being held at a farm in nearby Ovcara, near to where the final massacre is said to have taken place. This included being forced to “run the gauntlet” between lines of men who kicked them and beat them with rifle butts and crutches.

Milorad Vojnovic, an officer in the JNA, confirmed this abuse, and said that a soldier who he understood to be subordinated to Mrksic and Sljivancanin was present at the site while it was going on. When he personally reported the violence to Mrksic, Vojnovic remembered that the accused replied, “Don’t talk to me about this.”

Elsewhere in the case, Danish military doctor Jan Alan Shou recalled how Sljivancanin prevented him and his colleagues from the European Commission Monitoring Mission, ECMM, along with representatives of the International Red Cross, from travelling to the hospital on the day the prisoners were taken away.

When they finally got through, Shou said, they found only women, children and a few men, who were being harassed by drunken Serb paramilitaries. Sljivancanin apparently told him that the rest of the men had been arrested as “criminals”.

Witnesses have also spoken of abuse and murders of detainees from the hospital who were held at a local factory complex referred to as Velepromet.

When Mrksic’s defence lawyer demanded to know why another witness – a former JNA soldier – had not acted on his own initiative to arrest the paramilitaries responsible for murders at Velepromet, the witness replied, “How could I arrest them when Mrksic and Sljivancanin placed them there?”

In May, judges blocked prosecution efforts to argue that a count of persecutions as a crime against humanity in the indictment against Mrksic, Sljivancanin and Radic should be understood to include the alleged crimes at Velepromet. The trial chamber said the prosecutors had not made it clear enough in the indictment itself, in their pre-trial brief, and in their opening statement that this was their intention.

Events at Velepromet could still play an important role in the case, as an indicator of whether the accused should have been able to foresee the crimes which were to occur at Ovcara.

The defence case is due to get under way in August.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

More IWPR's Global Voices