Croatian Court Convicts Senior Policeman in Marathon Case
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||8 May 2009|
|Citation / Document Symbol||TU No 600|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Croatian Court Convicts Senior Policeman in Marathon Case, 8 May 2009, TU No 600, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a0d1f40c.html [accessed 4 October 2015]|
After three retrials stretching over almost 17 years, Hrastov sentenced to eight years in jail.
By Goran Jungvirth in Zagreb (TU No 600, 8-May-09)Croatia's Supreme Court this week found former special forces policeman Mihajlo Hrastov guilty of killing and wounding unarmed prisoners of war in the early months of Croatia's war of independence.
In an unusual move for the country's highest court, it did not simply go over the caseload to reach its verdict, but held its own hearing - reviewing evidence and listening to testimonies before passing a sentence of eight years' imprisonment.
Hrastov was charged with killing 13 and wounding 2 Yugoslav National Army, JNA, soldiers who had surrendered their weapons near Karlovac in September 1991. He was found not guilty by the Karlovac County Court in three previous trials after judges found he had acted in self-defence, but all of these verdicts were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.
Independent western monitors and human rights groups in Croatia and Serbia condemned the county court proceedings as flawed and biased in favour of the defendant, who was praised as a war hero by Croatia's late wartime president Franjo Tudjman and made an honorary citizen of Karlovac in the mid-1990s.
The killings on the Korana Bridge near Karlovac took place at the beginning of the 1991-95 Croatian war of independence, which erupted following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
The area around Karlovac, a prosperous baroque town known for its beer production, suffered much damage during the war as its location in the heart of Croatia put it on the frontlines between Croatian forces and rebel Serbs.
The case against Hrastov began in May 1992, when he was first indicted with killing soldiers in breach of the Hague convention on the rules and customs of war and the Geneva convention on the treatment of war prisoners.
In an intensely politicised atmosphere as war still raged across the country, he was found not guilty after judges ruled he had acted in self defence. However, the Supreme Court quashed the verdict and ordered a retrial.
The proceedings began again from scratch in 2000, and Hrastov was found not guilty for a second time in a 2002 verdict, again incurring the intervention of the Supreme Court and the order for another retrial.
The third trial started in 2004.
Despite procedural weaknesses, interruptions following Hrastov's admission into a psychiatric clinic, and a continued atmosphere of intimidation in the courtroom, observers said the trial was the most comprehensive to date, with prosecutors requesting additional evidence, such as ballistics reports and a reconstruction of the crime scene.
During the proceedings, the testimonies of survivors were heard for the first time, while senior Karlovac policemen appeared as defence witnesses.
One of the survivors, reservist Svetozar Sarac, testified about events leading up to the killings, saying that he and his fellow JNA soldiers had stepped out of their vehicle in order to surrender and had made clear moves to show their intention to do so.
They put their weapons and equipment on the pavement on the bridge and lay on the ground on their stomachs, folding their arms behind their neck, said the witness.
According to him, they were then ordered to step off the bridge and walk on a path leading towards a fishermen's hut where they were told to lie down again. Immediately after they lay down, one man's throat was slit, he said.
Sarac also testified that the prisoners were then ordered to go back to the bridge, before three masked persons carrying automatic rifles approached them from the direction of the Korana Hotel and started shooting.
The witness, who said he did not hear any orders issued, or verbal agreements made between the special policemen, testified that he was shot in the ribs and lost consciousness. He said it was dark when he regained consciousness; there was blood everywhere and bodies were lying on the ground.
In March 2007, the court again acquitted Hrastov, finding that he had acted in self-defence.
Explaining its non-guilty verdict, the court said it had taken into consideration the wider context of events in Croatia and the situation in Karlovac at the time of the incident, which was under JNA heavy artillery.
It added that in opening fire, Hrastrov had acted to protect himself, fellow soldier Goran Cerkez who was under attack, and his town from what he assumed, based on his experience, was an advance column of enemy soldiers sent to capture it.
Hrastov has pleaded innocent throughout the trials, reiterating that he acted in self-defence under extenuating circumstances.
In the third trial, he expressly stated that he was "not a war criminal", that he had not committed either a war crime, or the criminal act he had been charged with, and that he had not killed anybody.
Due to a particular procedural rule, the Supreme Court's decision in this case may not be the final word, and Hrastov still has the option to appeal.
His defence team has already said it will challenge the ruling, insisting that he acted in self-defence. In the meantime, Hrastov has been remanded in custody.
Although Croats' nationalist fervour has somewhat cooled compared to the 1990s, the Croatian public is still uneasy about court cases that highlight crimes of Croats against Serbs, who are widely seen as the aggressors and sole villains of the conflict.
Meanwhile, nationalists in the country remain opposed to any proceedings against men they see as having acted as heroes in a defensive war.
Some groups in Croatia were critical of this week's verdict.
The Association of Police Special Forces in Karlovac County expressed its "bitterness" at the Supreme Court verdict, while asking for all of those who fought for Croatia's defence during the war to refrain from "emotional reactions".
The conservative Croatian Cultural Council described the verdict as "shameful and unsustainable", calling Hrastov "a symbol of Karlovac's defence and a hero of the Homeland War".
It lamented that in modern-day Croatia "the defence of the homeland has been made into a crime", and called for the annulment of this "political" verdict and a "new and fair trial for Hrastov".
Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting