Beli Manastir verdict delivers incomplete justice

On June 19th, 2012, the trial chamber of the Higher Court in Belgrade – War Crimes Department, presided over by Judge Dragan Mirković, convicted four persons indicted for the commission of war crimes against Croat civilians in the Beli Manastir municipality between August 1991 and later the same year. Zoran Vukšić was sentenced to 20 years in prison Slobodan Strigić to 10 years, Bransko Hrnjak to 5 years and Velimir Bertić to 1 year and 6 months.

Investigators also launched proceedings against Zoran Madžarac, who was accused by many witnesses of participating, along with Vukšić, in the murder of Adam Barić, the wounding of his wife Ana, instigating a joint plan and organizing the killing of four men from the Čičak family. However, the proceedings against Madžarac were suspended because he is inaccessible to the authorities of the Republic of Serbia.


Vukšić, Strigić, Hrnjak and Bertić were found guilty of the murder of at least five Croat civilians, unlawful detentions, violation of bodily integrity (beating, wounding or causing serious bodily harm), intimidation, torture, terror, and the inhumane treatment of arrested and detained persons in a detention centre at the Beli Manastir Secretariat of Interior.


The HLC believes that, given the facts established during this trial, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor must press forward with the prosecution of all individuals allegedly responsible for the crimes committed in Beli Manastir, who were not initially included in this trial.


A great deal of evidence was presented during the main trial, on the basis of which the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor could have broadened the indictment, including several other individuals. In its  judgment, the trial chamber underlined that in addition to those accused, their superiors should also be held responsible because they were aware of the crimes committed and who the perpetrators were, but they failed to prosecute any of them. Moreover, the court stated that had Vukšić, been arrested  after the commission of  some of his first crimes, the murder of four members of the Čičak family would have been prevented.


Milan Jarić, the then Commander of the Special Operations Unit in which the accused Vukšić, Strigić and Bertić served, and Radoslav Zdjelarević, the then Secretary of the Beli Manastir Secretariat of Interior, were examined as witnesses during the trial. They stated that they were aware of the crimes in the indictment, that they had heard the commission of these crimes was linked to the name of the accused Vukšić and that he had been the subject of an investigation, but that there was not enough evidence for him to be prosecuted.


A number of witnesses during the trial, also mentioned the name of Violeta Ilić, the then girlfriend of the accused Vukšić, who would allegedly enter the detention facilities together with Vukšić torture the detainees, beat them and put out cigarettes on their feet and chest.


HLC thinks that the sentence handed down to Velimir Bertić was unreasonably low, and it does not represent an adequate reaction to his crimes, nor does it represent adequate punishment, as prescribed by the law.


The court reduced the sentence against the accused Bertić below the minimum prescribed by the law, despite it having been established in his case that during the time covered by the indictment, that on several occasions he beat the detainees, threatened them and abused them in various ways. As the main reasons for the mitigation of his sentence below the legally prescribed minimum, the court stated that at the time of the offenses,  Bertić was 22 years-old, that he was currently married and a father of two, and that he was in  employment. Reduction of the sentence because of these mitigating circumstances is inappropriate and offensive to the victims and their families, particularly if we bear in mind the motives behind the commission of the crime and the brutality shown by Bertić during the commission of the crime.


In its judgment, the court established that on August 28th, 1991, the accused Vukšić, together with other members of the Beli Manastir Secretariat of Interior Special Operations Unit, participated in an attack on the village of Kozarac [in the municipality of Beli Manastir]. The Yugoslav People’s  Army (JNA) organized a ‘cleansing’ operation in the village. As well as the units of the JNA, the territorial defence units of Baranja, Istočna Slavonija, and Zapadni Srem and the Beli Manastir Secretariat of Interior Special Operations Unit also participated in the attack. Vukšić, Strigić and Bertić were members of this latter unit. Vukšić arrived at the house of Josip Vid and asked him to surrender his weapons. When he said that he did not have any weapons, the accused took out his pistol and shot the victim in the leg. On October 10th, 1991, Vukšić, together with Zoran Madžarac [against whom proceedings have been suspended] shot and killed Adam Barić, with a pistol in a place known as Sudaraš, and stabbed his wife Ana three times in the neck. On October 17th, 1991, Vukšić, together with  Zoran Madžarac, Strigić and Hrnjak, killed Vinko Čičak and his three sons: Ante, Mato, and Ivan near the abandoned Karaševo farmhouse. The court established that Vukšić, Strigić and Zoran Madžarac, were the main organizers and perpetrators of the killing of the men of the Čičak family. Strigić let off a burst of fire from his automatic weapon and killed Ante Čičak, who had previously sustained a gunshot to the head from Vukšić. Whilst Hrnjak did not take an active part in the killings, the court found him guilty because by being present at the scene and consenting to their intent to commit these criminal offences he was jointly liable with Vukšić and Zoran Madžarac. The court also established that the accused Vukšić and Bertić had beaten and kicked a large number of detainees, struck them with batons and cables, threatened to kill them and pointed guns at their heads and made them sing ‘chetnik songs’.


The Office of the State Attorney of the Republic of Croatia transferred the case to the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor of the Republic of Serbia in 2008, and the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor filed the indictment against Zoran Vukšić, Slobodan Strigić, Branko Hrnjak, and Velimir Bertić on June 23rd, 2010. The main trial began on November 1st, 2010.