Ex-Serbian commander Dragan ‘Captain Dragan’ Vasiljkovic has been sentenced by a Croatian court to 15 years imprisonment for war crimes, including torturing soldiers and murdering civilians during the 1991-95 Croatian War of Independence.
The three-judge panel of the municipal court in Split, Croatia, found Vasiljković guilty of two of the three charges which he faced for violation of the Geneva Convention. 62-year-old Vasiljković had commanded the Serbian paramilitary group called the Knindže (‘Red Berets’) during the conflict. He was found guilty of torturing captive Croatian police and soldiers along with commanding a unit that killed a civilian and German reporter while also looting and destroying substantial property. The court cleared Vasiljković of murder charges after captured Croatian soldiers were killed during a similar attack on villages near the town of Benkovac in 1993.
Around 60 witnesses testified for the prosecution during the trial, including prisoners who said they were tortured by Vasiljković. Victims’ accounts detail how Vasiljković and his unit would beat them with their hands, feet, and other objects, push gun barrels in their mouths, and humiliate the prisoners by ‘playing a game’ where they would lead the prisoners by electrified wires tied around their testicles.
Dragan Vasiljković was born in Serbia before moving to Australia at age 15 (he holds a dual Serbian-Australian citizenship). He returned to the Balkans in 1991 amidst the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia to train Croatian-Serb rebels in the Belgrade-backed uprising against Croatia’s secession and fledgeling armed forces. He came back to live in Perth, Western Australia, in 2004, under the name Daniel Sneddon.
This sentence is the latest development in a decade-long saga of legal battling aimed at holding ‘Captain Dragan’ accountable for crimes committed during the Croatian War of Independence, which in total claimed the lives of around 20,000 people.
Vasiljković has been identified as part of a joint criminal enterprise and investigated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, he has not been brought before the tribunal. The legal saga began in 2004 when Croatia first issued a warrant for his arrest. Then, in September 2005, the Australian newspaper published an article accusing Vasiljković of war crimes during his time as paramilitary commander between 1991-94. In response, Vasiljković launched a public defamation case, which was ultimately decided against him in December 2009 in somewhat of a de facto war crimes indictment.
A warrant for his arrest had also been issued by Interpol and he was arrested in Australia in 2006. Vasiljković sought to prevent his extradition under the Extradition Act 1988 (Cth), on the basis that as a Serbian Captain, he would not receive a fair trial in a Croatian court. On appeal in the Federal Court of Australia in September 2009, Vasiljković was successful and released from the maximum-security prison in Western Sydney where he was being held pending appeal. The court ruled that “there was a substantial or real chance of prejudice” if he was extradited to Croatia.
However, this was overturned in the High Court in 2010, which ruled that ‘Captain Dragan’ was extraditable to Croatia. At this point, Vasiljković could not be found, and the Australian Federal Police launched a nationwide manhunt, culminating in his capture in northern New South Wales on 12 May 2010, 43 days after his last known whereabouts.
Vasiljković then challenged the administrative decision to extradite him, although this was rejected by the Full Federal Court. The High Court then refused Vasiljković leave to hear the case, finally exhausting all legal avenues for preventing or delaying his extradition. He was surrendered by Australian authorities to Croatian police officers at Sydney airport on the morning of 8 July 2015, becoming Australia’s first extradited war crimes suspect. Upon arrival in Croatia, he was transferred to an isolated wing of a high-security jail in Split.
Vasiljković pleaded not guilty to the war crimes charges and maintained his innocence throughout the year-long trial in Croatia. According to Croatian media reports, he told the court: “I am not an aggressor or a war criminal. I am a defender of my homeland of Yugoslavia, which I really liked. We were all Yugoslavs”. In statements last week, he claimed his trial was “an oppressive fascist process”, and once again refuted both the charges against him and his extradition from Australia to face court in Croatia.
The Croatian judges said they would take into account his time spent in detention in Australia and Croatia, which would leave three and a half years remaining. His lawyers have also advised that they will appeal the decision.
The case of Dragan Vasiljković demonstrates the difficulty and time-consuming nature of prosecuting international crimes. It also demonstrates the limits of international institutions for achieving justice, and their reliance on individual states and justice systems to ensure perpetrators are brought to account. This is especially the case for those middle-ranking commanders who are beyond the priorities and capacity of international courts, but whom have nevertheless committed egregious crimes in violation of international law. As such, it is important to continue to strengthen the harmony between international legal institutions and domestic justice systems and develop cooperative bilateral and multilateral processes for bringing individuals to justice. For Australia, a greater willingness to investigate and prosecute war criminals at home is necessary to fulfil its obligations under international law, especially in light of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq involving ISIS, where a number of notorious Australians have gone to fight and engaged in atrocities.
Another message from this case resonates with our times powerfully articulated by Christiane Scholtzer, the widow of the German journalist who was killed during the 1991 attacks. Reflecting on the trial and the war, she said:
“It’s a very symbolic case for Croatia. […] It also shows that nationalism is a poison, nationalism is very dangerous, and it was this ideology of nationalism who created this war.”
These are moving words to heed in the current political climate, where nationalistic fervour and demagoguery has been renewed.
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