Serbian Court Convicts 14 in Massacre of POWs in '91

Croats outside a Belgrade court display photos of loved ones killed in the massacre of nearly 200 Croatian prisoners of war by Serb militias in 1991.
Croats outside a Belgrade court display photos of loved ones killed in the massacre of nearly 200 Croatian prisoners of war by Serb militias in 1991. (By Srdjan Ilic -- Associated Press)
By Beti Bilandzic
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

BELGRADE, Dec. 12 -- A Serbian court on Monday convicted 14 former Serb militia members of the massacre of nearly 200 Croatian prisoners of war, many of them already wounded, during the battle of Vukovar in November 1991.

A special Belgrade court found them guilty of carrying out the executions on a pig farm at the end of the three-month siege of Croatia's easternmost town by local Serb rebels backed by Yugoslav army troops, tanks and artillery.

"They are guilty . . . of murders, inflicting bodily harm and behaving in an inhumane way calculated to degrade human dignity," the presiding judge, Vesko Krstajic, said in delivering the verdict.

In the most significant war crimes judgment to date by a Serbian court, the judge ordered prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years for the 14 former militia members.

Three Serb commanders charged with orchestrating the massacre are currently on trial before the U. N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Two other former militiamen charged in the Serbian court were acquitted.

The slaughter at the start of Croatia's war of independence was the first atrocity of many in the ensuing four years, as Croats and Bosnians battled Serbs in wars of a ferocity not seen in Europe since World War II.

The massacre took place over two days. Members of the Serb militia rounded up victims from the hospital where they had sought shelter from bombardment, put them on trailers and took them to pits where firing squads shot them seven or eight at a time. The pits were then bulldozed over.

Eight of the militia members convicted Monday received the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. They are Miroljub Vujovic, Stanko Vujanovic, Milan Lancuzanin, Predrag Milojevic, Stosic Djordje and Djankovic Miroslav.

Three others were given 15-year terms and one woman, Kalaba Nada, was sentenced to nine years.

The sentences were given on the same day retired Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina pleaded not guilty to charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.

Serbia's special war crimes court was set up with approval from the Hague tribunal in 2003 to show that the country was able to face up to its bloody past. U.N. prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who is prosecuting the three Vukovar defendants in The Hague, supplied documents for the Belgrade case.

Bruno Vekaric, the spokesman for Serbia's prosecutor, said the court had changed the public perception of war crimes. "No one denies any more that the crimes took place. The public has been confronted with them and accepted that such crimes must be tried and the perpetrators punished," Vekaric said.

Del Ponte has praised Belgrade's special court but insisted that Serbia must deliver to The Hague six remaining Serb war crimes fugitives, including the two most-wanted -- the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic.

Following last week's arrest of Gotovina, Croatia's top war crimes indictee, Serbia has come under greater pressure to follow suit and produce Karadzic and Mladic. Serbian authorities say they do not know the location of either man.

Full cooperation with the U.N. court, which would have to include the arrest of the two, is a condition for the country to pursue steps toward membership of the European Union and the NATO alliance.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company