14 April 2005, Volume
WAR CRIMINALS OR NATIONAL HEROES?
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg.
Ms. Kandic has mentioned the Ovcara case dating from the fall of Vukovar in late 1991. The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, suggested in February that the trial of the so-called Vukovar three -- Miroslav Radic, Veselin Sljivancanin, and Mile Mrksic -- be sent to either to Serbia or Croatia [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2005]. Both Croatia and Serbia want the trial. Which would you pick, Mr. Pusic?
Croatia, because the victims were from Croatia, although it would be better for Serbia to get the case, since the perpetrators are from Serbia and the trial could become a sort of catharsis.... The most likely possibility is that the trials will be assigned according to the nationality of perpetrators, which means that perpetrators from Serbia will be tried in Serbia and those from Croatia in Croatia.
The Hague tribunal should help judges in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia get their bearings. Milan Vukovic, who is a former president of the Supreme Court of Croatia and a current member of its Constitutional Court, said that Croats could not have committed crimes -- simply because they are members of a nation that was a victim of crimes. Such statements leave little hope for unbiased trials.
Mrs. Kandic, to whom would you give the case?
What I find the most important is that the victims obtain justice and that the state responsible for a horrible crime admit its responsibility. That is the only way for victims to regain their human dignity. So far, the Serbian authorities have been dodging responsibility, but now they must acknowledge it by sentencing the perpetrators.
So you think that they should be tried in Serbia?
Yes, it is the only way to prevent [such crimes] from happening again. We, the people of Serbia, must finally look at the faces of family members of those killed at Ovcara and show them that we accept responsibility for what happened. For them, it can mean more than seeing the perpetrators being sentenced to death by a Croatian court. That would be the best way to help the victims get their dignity back.
I agree that for Serbia it would be better if the trials are held there, but I'm not sure how the victims' families will react.... However, for future relations between Croatia and Serbia, it is very important that every country organizes the trials of "its own" criminals and punishes them. Crime has no nationality, but criminals often wrap themselves in the flag -- and the bigger the crime, the bigger the flag.
Yes, but can those national courts overcome the pressure of public sentiment?
Last year in Serbia, a court of first instance issued a verdict against a member of the Republika Srpska police, in fact a member of the special forces, for the murders of 14 women and children in Kosovo during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. The trial started in Prokuplje, a little town near Kosovo. The audience was filled with the friends and family of the accused, who were cheering him. The indictment was so flimsy that the names of the victims were not even mentioned.
However, we fought and managed to get the trial transferred to Belgrade. It was assigned to Judge Biljana Sinanovic. She called the Albanians, whose entire families were killed, to testify. It took months for us from the Humanitarian Law Center to persuade those people that it is very important that they accept the call and tell their story before a court of the state that had organized the terror. The horrors they recalled led to a member of the police unit that perpetrated the massacre confirming the stories before the court. That had never happened before, and I fear that it will take a lot of time before it happens again.
Just imagine a former policeman testifying before the court about the crime committed by his unit in Podujevo, how children were killed and who took part in it. The severest punishment was imposed on the perpetrator -- 20 years in prison. And what happened next? In December 2004, the Supreme Court of Serbia reversed the sentence. Can you imagine the effect of that ruling on the families of the victims?
That same month, the same court reversed yet another war crimes verdict. The Supreme Court has thus become a major obstacle to holding successful war-crimes trials since the majority on the bench there consists of judges appointed during the Milosevic era. Nothing has changed.
But the Supreme Court of Croatia did the opposite and sentenced policeman Mihajlo Hrastov, who had been twice acquitted [by lower courts] despite having been indicted for the murder of 13 Yugoslav Army [JNA] reservists in 1991.
Yes, that is correct. This is why our Civic Committee for Human Rights demanded that the case be transferred to one of the [serious] special courts that will organize war crimes trials under the supervision of the Hague tribunal.
The case of Mihajlo Hrastov has been dragging on for 14 years. In the meantime, he received a medal from the late President Franjo Tudjman, one from the city of Karlovac, and other honors. I think that the time has come to put an end to this charade, to present all the facts openly, and have all the survivors of the massacre testify before a serious court.
A young prosecutor, Davorka Njerz-Katusic, recently quit the case after being prevented from gathering evidence that might help her put it on a firm footing. Then she was fired from the prosecutor's office and is now unemployed.... It seems that the prosecution sometimes doesn't prepare its case very seriously.
You think that it is done on purpose?
That can hardly be proved, but if the prosecution drags it feet in gathering evidence and fails to call the most relevant witnesses, then it seems that more than just negligence is involved.
And to conclude, what will happen in the future if new generations see the indictees as national heroes or at least a victims of an unjust court?
NGOs and the civil society must raise their voices against the lionizing of war criminals. These bodies must publicize the facts, support local war crimes trials, and seek justice for the victims.
The truth is proved by arguments and facts, not declarations. The Croatian parliament passed a declaration saying that Croatia has never committed aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but people know that this wasn't the case.... Serbia and Croatia must now face up to the past in order to show that they have left the stage of infantile nationalism had have become more mature.