Lovas case first-instance judgment demonstrates professionalism of Trial Panel
On June 26, 2012 the Trial Panel of the Higher Court in Belgrade – War Crimes Department, presided over by judge Olivera Andjelkovic, delivered its judgment on fourteen defendants, convicted for having ordered or carried out an attack on Croat civilians in the village of Lovas, in the Republic of Croatia, during October and November 1991. The fourteen were convicted for having committed crimes of inhuman treatment, torture, violation of bodily integrity (beating, wounding or causing serious bodily harm) and murder, which resulted in the killing of 40 and the wounding of 11 Croat civilians.
Those convicted were: Ljuban Devetak, who at the time of the events was in charge of the village of Lovas, and who was sentenced to 20 years in prison; Milan Radojcic, who was the commander of the Territorial Defence Force of Lovas and who was sentenced to 13 years in prison; Milan Devcic, who was in charge of the newly established police station in Lovas, and who was sentenced to 10 years; Zeljko Krnjajic, who was commander of an armed group and the commander of the newly established police station in Tovarnik, and who was sentenced to 10 years; Miodrag Dimitrijevic, a JNA lieutenant, who was present in his capacity as coordinator of the unit of the Fourth Operational Zone, and the Second Proletarian Guard Mechanized Brigade of the JNA in the territory of the Republic of Croatia, and who was sentenced 10 years in prison; Darko Peric, a reserve captain, who was present in his capacity as the Commander of the Counter-Terrorist Detachment of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo and who was sentenced to 5 years; Radovan Vlajkovic, a reserve lieutenant, who was commander of the anti-terrorist company of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo, and who was sentenced to 5 years in prison; Radisav Josipovic, a reserve lieutenant, who was commander of the first squad of the same company, and who was sentenced to 4 years; and Petronije Stevanovic, Zoran Kosijer, Sasa Stojanovic, Jovan Dimitrijevic, Dragan Bacic and Aleksandar Nikolaidis, all members of the Dusan Silni volunteer force which operated as part of the Territorial Defense Force of Lovas, who were sentenced to 14 years, 9 years, 8 years, 8 years, 6 years and 6 years respectively.
- The court conducted the criminal proceedings impeccably, but was unable to correct the deficiencies arising from a selective indictment, both as regards to the choice of the indictees, and in relation to the specific events or actions that constituted a violation of international humanitarian law in the area of Lovas, which was under the control of the JNA.
The court established that the indictees were responsible for the killing of 40 Croat civilians, although the original indictment alleged that during October and November 1991, 69 civilians were killed. The court heard the testimonies and the names of the JNA officers and the volunteers from Serbia who participated in the crucial events not covered by the indictment. The fact that these events were not included in the indictment left as many as 30 victims without the satisfaction of a completed judicial process. The HLC is in full agreement with the court’s ruling that the command of the JNA Second Proletarian Guard Mechanized Brigade was most responsible for the killing of the civilians in Lovas. Not a single member of that brigade was included in the indictment.
The eviction of Croats from Lovas was ordered by the newly established government in Lovas; civilians were also evicted from the areas under the control of the JNA (Lovas, Ilok), but this issue was omitted from the indictment, and this omission led to the incomplete establishment of facts, the establishment of an insufficient degree of criminal responsibility on the part of the accused, and the protection from criminal liability of officers of the JNA who made the decision to deport the Croat population.
- The oral explanation of the first instance judgment will be remembered for having judged that being in a command role increases an individual’s degree of criminal responsibility and their duty to protect civilians, something that the court assessed as an aggravating circumstance in the cases of indictees Devetak, Radojcic, Devcic, Krnjajic and Miodrag Dimitrijevic, who, according to the appropriate conclusion of the court, were obliged to prevent the crimes and to protect the civilian population.
The court sentenced defendant Devetak to the maximum possible prison sentence because it concluded that he had the greatest authority and real influence in Lovas at the time of the crime, and consequently a significant impact on other defendants’ motivation to commit crimes. In the case of defendant Milan Radojcic, the court concluded that the fact that he was a commander, increased the degree of his criminal responsibility: he pursued and implemented the orders of defendant Devetak, acting as his deputy and his “right hand” man. The Court assessed as an aggravating circumstance the fact that at the time the offense, defendant Milan Devcic was a professional police officer, in fact a police commander, and that this should have obliged him to prevent the crimes, rather than act to the contrary. In the case of Devcic, the court properly assessed as an aggravating circumstance, his conduct in the courtroom when he asked the injured parties who in their families was a member of the HDZ, a member of the Croatian MUP (Interior Ministry Police) or the Croatian National Guard (ZNG). With regard to the defendant Krnjajic, the court also established his command position was an aggravating circumstance, noting that he, as a police commander and the commander of the militia groups involved in the attack, was required to prevent attacks on civilians and to protect them, rather than offer a poor example to other members of his group. In the case of defendant Miodrag Dimitrijevic, the court assessed as an aggravating circumstance the fact that at the time of the offense he was a JNA lieutenant and
the highest-ranking military officer in Lovas, whose duty it was to prevent violations of international humanitarian law, particularly with regard to the rules concerning civilians. According to the court’s conclusion, Miodrag Dimitrijevic acted precisely contrary to this obligation, including by recruiting a counter-terrorist squad to use civilians as human shields, an act which ultimately led to the deaths of 17 civilians and injuries to 11.
- The court had the courage to point to the shameful testimonies of the JNA officers and at “their even more disgraceful behavior during the events in question, because those upon whom most responsibility fell to explain in court what had happened in Lovas and why so many people had died in such a short time, suffered from amnesia in this courtroom, while at the time of the events in question they did not even bother to count the number of persons killed in the minefield, nor to record their names, and furthermore allowed the bodies be thrown in a trench dug in the cemetery, as if they were animals.”
- That the court stated that the JNA Military Prosecution service had disguised the criminal complaint concerning the events in Lovas, filed in 1991, is particularly noteworthy.
- The application of FRY criminal law, which stipulates 20 years as the maximum and 5 years as the minimum prison sentence for war crimes, has once again proved to be a major cause of dissatisfaction among the victims’ families. Prison sentences of 5 and 6 years for those convicted in the Lovas case, and sentences below the statutory minimum, are inappropriate for the seriousness of the crimes, which involved the killing of a large number of protected persons. The crimes described by the court in the cases of reserve officers of the JNA indicated a need for far greater penalties than those handed down.
The court sentenced the defendant Vlajkovic, the company commander of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo, to just 5 years in prison despite the fact that the court recognised the seriousness of the consequences of his acts – the killing of 17 civilians and the injuries to 11. The court also stated that Vlajkovic and his soldiers had participated in the commission of an offense. His sentence of 5 years was handed down despite the fact that he saw that civilians had been injured, that one civilian had been killed while the group of civilians was forced to participate in a “terrain searching” operation, and that he continued to participate in the commission of the offense even when it had become clear that of the purpose of bringing civilians into the vineyard was the demining operation.
The court showed understanding for the defendant Josipovic, commander of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo, sentencing him to 4 years in prison. The court’s explanation was that Josipovic acted on the orders of his superior, that his superior was present during the commission of the crime, and that his responsibility was little greater than that of an ordinary soldier. This is difficult to link with the court’s obligation to punish the perpetrators of war crimes with an appropriate penalty that would actually discourage further crimes, rather than diminish the responsibility for committing the war crimes.
During the trial that lasted four years, the court examined 194 witnesses, 76 via video link from the county courts in Vukovar, Osijek, Rijeka and Zagreb, and read the testimonies of a further 36, who, by the time of the trial were either sick or deceased. At the trial, former JNA officer Lieutenant Colonel Miodrag Dimitrijevic, was tried for war crimes for the first time.
The Trial Panel found that the command of the Second Proletarian Guard Mechanized Brigade of the JNA, which included the Territorial Defense Force, the militia of Tovarnik and the Dusan Silni volunteer group, issued an order on October 9, 1991, to attack the undefended village of Lovas, with the task of ‘cleansing’ the village of members of National Guard (ZNG), the Croatian MUP, and of the hostile population. In the artillery attack by the Second Brigade one civilian was killed and one was wounded, while in the ‘cleansing’ operation some 20 Croatian civilians were killed in the village.
The court found defendant Krnjajic responsible for the killing of seven civilians during the attack on Lovas on October 10, 1991.
The court found that during the period of October 10-18, 1991, with the assistance of the Territorial Defense Force, the newly formed militia and the Dusan Silni volunteer group, defendants Devetak, Radojcic and Devcic detained about 40 Croatian civilians in a cellar in the yard of the local community center, 16 of whom had been killed by October 18, 1991.
The court also found that on October 17, 1991, defendants Devetak and Miodrag Dimitrijevic devised a plan and agreed to send the anti-terrorist squad of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo, the Dusan Silni volunteer group and two members of the Territorial Defense Force of Lovas to use the Croatian civilians detained in the agricultural cooperative as security against possible attacks by Croatian forces (so-called human shields) and to use them to search the terrain in the area of the vineyard for mines, even though they knew that on October 13, 1991 members of the JNA had laid mines in this territory. Defendant Dimitrijevic ordered that the commander of the anti-terrorist squad of the Territorial Defense Force of Valjevo, Peric, make sure that the company that arrived in Lovas on October 17, 1991, together with members of the Dusan Silni volunteer group, carried out that task. The next day, on the orders of Peric, defendants Vlajkovic and Josipovic arrived with about 50 soldiers at the cooperative, where they saw that some of the detained civilians had been severely beaten. There, they were joined by members of the Dusan Silni volunteer group, J. Dimitrijevic, Stojanovic, Bacic and Kosijer, with orders received from an unidentified person, to use the civilians for the demining of the minefield laid in a field of clover in the vicinity of the Borovo factory. On that day, during the demining operation, 17 Croatian civilians were killed.
The court also found that defendant Petronije Stevanovic, encouraged by defendant Devetak, used his fists, feet, cables, metal bars and knives to injure a number of Croat civilians, and that on the orders of defendant Devetak, together with defendant Aleksandar Nikolaidis, he took part in the murder of an undetermined number of Croat civilians.