Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The controversial trial of the “Vukovar Three” at The Hague looks set for a lengthy delay, before it has even started.
The trial concerns three former Yugoslav army officers - Veselin Sljivancanin, Mile Radic and Mile Mrksic - who are accused of involvement in the massacres of some 260 Croat civilians in 1991, close to the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar.
It has stirred up nationalist passions in both Croatia and Serbia, particularly concerning whether the trial was suitable to be heard in a Balkan court, and, if so, which country would have provided the best venue for serving the interests of justice.
At a status conference in at the tribunal this week, where outstanding technical issues in the run-up to a trial are usually discussed, defence counsels argued that they were facing a series of problems with regard to preparation for the case – including processing some 10 to 15 thousand pages of witness statements provided by the prosecution – partly because the tribunal had, until recently, been considering transferring the case. They said they would need an extra four to six weeks in order to prepare.
The trial concerns one of the most notorious events in the war in Croatia in which some 264 Croats at a hospital near Vukovar were separated from others as the town was taken over by Serb forces. They were transported to a nearby farm at Ovcara and there were killed by members of various Serb army units and paramilitary groups.
The Vukovar Three are accused of overseeing the rounding up and transfer of the victims, despite knowing or having a reasonable suspicion of what was to happen to them.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
In June, the tribunal chief prosecutor withdrew her motion to have the case tried locally, citing “potential difficulties…that could not have been foreseen at the time the application was made and when the case was argued”.
Disappointment was particularly severe in Belgrade, where the government continued to argue against the prosecutor’s reversal of her previous motion.
In a submission to the court, the Serbian authorities argued that it was now up to the judges, not the prosecutor, to decide whether or not the case deserved to be transferred, under the tribunal’s 11bis rule - which allows for the transfer of low- and mid-ranking cases to Balkan courts to enable the tribunal to complete all prosecutions by 2008.
At the end of June, the judges granted the prosecutor’s motion to withdraw her application for a trial transfer, a move, according to the pre-trial judge, related to “the intensity of feelings” surrounding the trial.
The trial was then scheduled to start with a pre-trial conference on October 3 and the presentation of the first prosecution witness on October 11.
At the status conference, the pre-trial judge gave the defence one week from September 7 in which to file a motion asking for a delay, and gave the prosecution ten days from the same date in which to respond.
Any decision on whether the case will be delayed will be made by Judge Kevin Parker, who will be the next pre-trial judge, and who is also expected to preside over the trial.
The prosecution said that they were planning to bring about 70 witnesses to testify, with a further eighteen providing written statements.
The pre-trial judge estimated that, based on those figures, the prosecution case would last about 25 weeks or 125 days.
Janet Anderson is IWPR programme manager in The Hague.
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