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Serbian Court Quashes Treason Conviction Of WWII General

Serbian Court Quashes Collaboration Conviction For WWII General
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WATCH: Rival demonstrators rally over a Serbian court decision quashing Dragoljub Mihailovic's conviction (natural sound).

A court in Belgrade has quashed the treason conviction of a Serbian general almost 70 years after he was sentenced and shot to death by communists.

Dragoljub "Draza" Mihailovic was convicted in July 1946 of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.

But the Higher Court of Belgrade ruled on May 14 that the verdict was now "null and void."

According to Serbian media reports, the ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

For decades, Mihailovic's fate has fueled division in Serbia. His backers view him as a national hero who died for political reasons. His critics say he collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia accused his troops, known as Chetniks, of committing numerous atrocities.

Inside the courtroom, dozens of Mihailovic supporters broke out into loud applause when the sentence was read out.

Outside the building, dozens of nationalist supporters and leftist opponents of Mihailovic gathered, but were kept apart by riot police.

In 1941, as a Yugoslav royal army officer, Mihailovic launched a resistance movement against German occupation. As fighting against the Axis Powers devolved into a bitter civil war, Mihailovic turned against communist guerrillas led by Josip Broz Tito.

With the conflict raging, Chetnik forces hunted and killed not only their ideological opponents, but Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and others on Yugoslav territory. Historians say tens of thousands were slain by the Chetniks because of their ethnicity.

In 1946, with Tito at the helm of postwar Yugoslavia, Mihailovic was captured and tried. He was found guilty of war crimes, collaborating with the Axis Powers, and agreeing a cease-fire with the Nazis.

He was reportedly shot on Belgrade's Ada Island. A protracted search for his grave in recent years has yielded nothing definitive.

In 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovic the Legion of Merit for his role in rescuing hundreds of U.S. airmen downed by the Nazis over Serbia.

A Belgade court in 2012 established that Draza Mihailovic died in 1946.
A Belgade court in 2012 established that Draza Mihailovic died in 1946.

However, Gordana Knezevic, the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service, says the award had more to do with Cold War calculus.

"At the time, Washington did not trust that Tito had broken with Moscow," she says. "It took a few years for that. So anyone opposed to Tito was seen as opposed to communism."

As Yugoslavia unraveled in war in the 1990s, the Chetnik movement underwent a revival. The name, insignia, and trademark beards were adopted by some Serbian paramilitaries as they fought to create a Greater Serbia.

In 2010, Mihailovic's grandson, Vojislav, petitioned the courts for his legal rehabilitation, arguing that his grandfather had fought Nazis, communists, and Nazi quislings alike while awaiting an Allied victory to rise up against the German occupiers.

Judge Aleksandar Tresnjev said Mihailovic's conviction was unsound.

"Besides the fact he did not have a fair trial, the case against Mihailovic was politically motivated given the fact that representatives of the executive branch interfered not only in the conduct of the trial but also in the decisions taken," he told the court.

Oliver Antic, an adviser to nationalist Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, was part of the legal team arguing Mihailovic's case. He welcomed the ruling. "This is a great day for law and justice not only for the Serbian people but for all decent Yugoslavs," Antic said.

However, in neighboring Croatia, where Mihailovic is considered a war criminal for the killing of Croats, Muslims, and communist partisans by members of his Chetnik movement, the ruling was denounced.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said she was "extremely unpleasantly surprised" by the court's decision.

"This is a huge mistake, comparable to rehabilitating Hitler, Mussolini, or [Croatian fascist leader Ante] Pavelic," Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic told reporters.

"It is up to Serbia to decide whether it wants to build its future on the legacy of antifascism, like the rest of Europe, or on something else," he said, alluding to Serbia's aim of one day joining Croatia in the European Union.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Sarajevo-based political analyst told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the court ruling should not come as a surprise.

Esad Bajtal said the nationalist atmosphere in Serbia had changed little from the days of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who was arrested in 2000, accused of causing many of the deaths that tore the Balkans apart in the 1990s.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.