Crime in Sotin

On 19 July 2007, at the Vukovar County Court, the defendants Živko Opačič and Milan Bjedov were non-validly acquitted of charges for a war crime against civilians referred to in Article 120, paragraph 1 of the Basic Criminal Law of the Republic of Croatia (hereinafter: the OKZ RH).

The Supreme Court of the RoC, at the session of the Panel held on 10 December 2008, terminated the criminal proceedings against the defendant Opačić (deceased on 12 October 2007), and rejected the appeal lodged by the State’s Attorney’s Office against the defendant Bjedov and upheld the acquitting verdict of the Vukovar County Court.

The proceedings against the defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov were separated with regard to other defendants who are unavailable to state bodies of the Republic of Croatia, against whom the indictment was issued by the Vukovar County State’s Attorney’s Office (hereinafter: the ŽDO) No. K-DO-3/01 dated 5 May 2006. The Extra-trial Council of the Vukovar County Court passed the decision on separation of the proceedings No. Kv-125/07 dated 23 May. The proceedings against the defendant Veljko Vasiljević were terminated.
INDICTMENT (SUMMARY)

Following the investigation, the Vukovar County State’s Attorney’s Office issued the indictment No. K-DO-3/01 dated 5 May with the Vukovar County Court against the following defendants: Milan Ostojić, Živko Opačić, Mladen Drača, Žarko Milošević, Biserko Kovačević, Slobodan Kovačević, Mirko Kovačević, Branko Lalić, Zore Macura, Milan Bjedov, Goran Pavić, Boris Anojčić, Željko Jokić, Jovanka Martić, Željko Mijakovac, Predrag Bezbradica and Veljko Vasiljević for a criminal act against the values protected by the international law – war crime against civilians referred to in Article 120, paragraph 1 of the OKZ RH.

Following the separation of the proceedings on 11 July 2007, the Vukovar ŽDO did not essentially modify the indictment against the defendants Živko Opačić and Milan Bjedov in terms of factual description.

The defendant are charged that, in the period between 10 October 1991 and April 1992, following the occupation of the village of Sotin by the so-called JNA (Yugoslav National Army) and Serb paramilitary formations, established the occupation authorities and set up the so-called Territorial Defence Headquarters as a local authority body where the defendant Milan Ostojić was commander. Together with other defendants, members of the so-called Headquarters, with the intention to expel remaining Croatian civilian population from the village of Sotin and turn it into a village 100% inhabited by ethnic Serbs, contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilians at the Time of War, they killed (Stipan Mikulić) and beat up (Stjepan Rac, Andrija Novosel, Đuro Miholjčanin, Miroslav Đulabić) civilians of Croatian ethnicity, treated them inhumanely, organised their expulsions, applied intimidation and terror, unlawfully detained civilians, forced civilians to serve enemy armed forces, organised forced labour, looted people’s property, took people away in unknown directions after which they disappeared without a trace (35 persons), while on 27 December 1991 all Croatian families had to abandon their houses and estates leaving behind all of their property and cross over to the free part of the Republic of Croatia. The defendant Živko Opačić is particularly charged that he took away Tomislav Marinović from the house belonging to Ivan Matijašević after which Mr. Marinović disappeared without a trace and that, together with other defendants, according to previously made lists, he forced Croats to embark on buses while they were expelled under threat of weapons. The defendant Milan Bjedov is particularly charged that, together with Zore Macura, he beat up Andrija Novosel.
MONITORING REPORTS

The proceedings were conducted before the War Crime Council of the Vukovar County Court comprising: Ante Zeljko – Council President, Jadraka Kurbel and Slavko Teofilović – Council members.

Prosecution: Emil Mitrovski – the Vukovar Deputy County State’s Attorney.

Defence counsels: Marko Babić, selected defence counsel of the defendant Milan Bjedov, Vojislav Ore, court-appointed defence counsel of the defendant Živko Opačić

Victims:

  • beaten: Stjepan Rac, Andrija Novosel, Đuro Miholjčanin, Miroslav Đulabić
  • missing: Vladimir Radić, Miroslav Raguž, Andrija Rajs, Martin Fischer, Anđelko Kunac, Tomislav Marinović, Krešimir Đukić, Hrvoje Đukić, Sidonija Đukić, Marko Ivančić, Đuro Počić, Stipo Mikulić, Mijo Andrijanić, Josip Hodovan, Andrija Varga, Dražen Tolp, Danko Kušić, Ante Luketić, Zoran Margarin, Dražen Luketić, Marko Filipović, Kata Filipović, Marko Raguž, Mira Raguž, Marko Kušić, Manda Kušić, Ivo Matiješević, Henrik Sili. Naknadno ekshumirani: Stipan Mikulić, Marin Škarica, Josip Novak, Slavko Novak, Vlatko Marinović, Pero Procek, Smajo Halilović, Nikola Kušić.

The main hearing commenced on 12 July 2007. The indictment was read. The defendants entered a non-guilty plea for the criminal act with which they were charged.

The defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov were detained due to particularly serious conditions under which the criminal act was committed.
VERDICT

On 19 July 2007, the President of the War Crime Council of the Vukovar County Court, Ante Zeljko, pronounced a verdict by which, pursuant to Article 354, paragraph 3 of the Criminal Procedure Act, the defendants Živko Opačić and Milan Bjedov were acquitted of charges.

The Council President gave a short explanation saying that, during the presentation of evidence, it was not established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had committed the criminal act with which they were charged in the indictment.

The Council passed a decision on cancellation of detention for both defendants and they were immediately released.

The Supreme Court of the RoC, at the session of the Panel held on 10 December 2008, terminated the criminal proceedings against the defendant Opačić (deceased on 12 October 2007), and rejected the appeal lodged by the State’s Attorney’s Office against the defendant Bjedov and upheld the acquitting verdict of the Vukovar County Court.

 

 

You can see the verdict and decision of the Supreme Court here. (in Croatian)

 

OPINION OF THE MONITORING TEAM FOLLOWING THE CONCLUDED FIRST-INSTANCE PROCEEDINGS

 

Overview of the proceedings.doc (in Cratian)

The criminal proceedings against the defendants Živko Opačić and Milan Bjedov for a war crime against civilians were properly conducted.

Having analysed and assessed the presented evidence, the Court – by passing the acquitting verdict – established that it was not proven the defendants had committed the criminal act with which they were charged in the indictment.

We see these proceedings as an example of indictments issued on the basis of investigations of dubious quality, after a lot of time elapsed since the crimes had been committed, with many witnesses who had already died in the meantime. The Prosecution modified the original indictment on two occasions and the prosecuting attorney proposed, during the evidence procedure, to question as witnesses those persons who had, during the investigation, given depositions precisely about the events that were left out of the indictment. Instead of such “wanderings” with issued indictments, along with the expectation that the so-called “proper” investigations are conducted only at the main hearings, we deem it necessary to re-open the investigations. Otherwise, we would be left with an unpleasant impression that judicial bodies are not up to the task of providing an appropriate response to the disaster that occurred to the victims of crimes in Sotin, as well as to the victims of many other crimes. We would be left with an impression that the scope of crimes and their consequences are not dealt with in a systematic manner, but rather occasionally, bearing in mind the current political and judicial events that pre-occupy the attention of the Croatian public and further irritate that public by manipulating it, instead of showing it that, in the long run, war crime should not «pay off».

Explanation

The Vukovar County Court, in the Council comprising Judge Ante Zeljko as the Council President and lay-judges Slavko Teofilović and Jadraka Kurbel as Council members, in the criminal case against the defendant Živko Opačić from Sotin et al. for a criminal act referred to in Article 120, paragraph 1 of the OKZ RH, with regard to the indictment issued by the Vukovar County State’s Attorney’s Office No. K-DO-3/01 dated 12 July 2007, following a public and concluded main hearing, in the presence of the defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov, the Vukovar Deputy County State’s Attorney’s Office Emil Mitrovski, court-appointed defence counsel Vojislav Ore and defence counsel Marko Babić, on 19 July 2007 passed the verdict acquitting the defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov of charges pursuant to Article 354, item 3 of the Criminal procedure Act.

Having analysed and assessed the presented evidence and the testimonies by the defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov, the Court established that it was not proven that the defendants had committed a war crime against civilians referred to in Article 120, paragraph 1 of the OKZ RH with which they were charged in the indictment. Namely, according to the verdict, it was not proven that the defendant Živko Opačić took away Tomislav Marinović from the house belonging to Ivan Matijašević after which Mr. Marinović disappeared without a trace, that he forced members of the Croatian nation to embark on buses, into exile, and that the defendant Milan Bjedov heavily beat Andrija Novosel.

After the indictment became legally valid, the decision of the Vukovar County Court No. Kv-125/07 dated 23 May 2007 separated criminal proceedings against the defendant Živko Opačić and the defendant Milan Bjedov. In the course of the procedure, the initial indictment was modified twice. The modifications dated 27 June 2007, following the separation of the proceedings, charged the defendant Živko Opačić with several criminal acts, and in a letter dated 11 July the prosecuting attorney omitted those incriminations from the factual description of the indictment because of, as he explained, an oversight when writing the indictment dated 27 June 2007.

Such actions by the prosecuting attorney come as a surprise because, during the investigation, certain witnesses – direct witnesses (Ivan Matijašević, Ana Radić, Denis Tolp, Nevenka Majcan) – testified precisely about the events pertaining to the actions performed by the defendant Opačić, omitted in the last modifications to the indictment dated 11 July 2007. Precisely those actions, by its nature, would represent modi operandi of committing a war crime against civilians. Furthermore, during the evidence procedure, the prosecuting attorney proposed that precisely those persons are questioned as witnesses about those (omitted) events. The Council President rejected such proposal with the explanation that those incriminations were no longer the subject of the proceedings, i. e. that the defendant Opačić is no longer charged with those criminal acts in the modified indictment.

However, not a single one of these indictments included the event about which Franciska Halilović spoke during the investigation and which is mentioned in the explanation of the initial indictment. Namely, she said that she had heard from her neighbour, Ana Torbica, that her husband Smajo was killed by the defendant Živko Opačić.

During the course of the main hearing, we did not notice violations of the provisions of the ZKP. The Council President warned the defendants about their legal rights and duties, presided over the main hearing professionally and with focus, ensured that the subject of the proceedings was extensively discussed, while at the same time taking care that it was economically run. One could sense that some witnesses were at unease and stunned about what was expecting them at the hearing.

28 December 2007

Center for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights – Osijek
Documenta, Zagreb
Civic Committee for Human Rights, Zagreb
Croatian Helsinki Committee, Zagreb