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Croatian Court Orders Retrial of 8 Croatian War Crimes Suspects - 2004-08-19


Croatia's Supreme Court has ordered the retrial of former Croatian military officials who were acquitted of killing ethnic Serbs in a prison during the Balkan war of the 1990s.

The Supreme Court ruled that eight former military police officers will have to be tried again for their alleged involvement in the torture and slaying of ethnic Serbs in a wartime prison, over a decade ago.

The five-member panel of judges made clear that an original trial that exonerated the defendants was, in its words, "fraught with serious flaws in criminal procedure as well as erroneous and incomplete facts."

District prosecutors indicted the policemen two years ago, on charges of random arrests, torture and killings of ethnic Serbs and Yugoslav army officers at the Lora military prison in 1992.

Investigators said that at least two inmates died of beatings in the jail in 1992, when Croatia was fighting Croatian Serb rebels opposed to the republic's independence from Yugoslavia.

But despite mounting evidence of the abuses, judge Slavko Lozina acquitted the military police officers in 2002 after he reportedly refused to guarantee the safety of key witnesses from neighboring Serbia and Montenegro.

Analysts say the retrial ordered by the Supreme Court is expected to show that Croatia was involved in war crimes, which was long denied by the late wartime President Franjo Tudjman, who blamed crimes solely on Serbia.

Drago Hedl of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, tells VOA that the reformist cabinet supports a retrial because NATO and the European Union have set prosecuting war crimes suspects as a key condition for membership.

Speaking by telephone from the Croatian town of Osiek, Mr. Hedl said that the government prefers to try alleged war criminals at home rather than transferring them to the United Nations Tribunal in The Hague.

"For [the] Croatian government it is easier to organize the trials in Croatia than to send people who are suspected of war crimes to The Hague, because as you know there are a lot of problems with the right wing in Croatia who organized demonstrations," he said.

Mr. Hedl added that he believes they will receive a fair trial but suggests they will likely receive stiff sentences.

A local court in the northern port city of Rijeka has already sentenced former general Mirko Norac to 12 years in prison in what was seen as the highest-profile war crimes trial to date.

In March the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of a Croatian soldier who machine-gunned to death a dozen unarmed Serb prisoners of war in 1991, in what he claimed was an act of self-defense. He was also acquitted by a local court.

It is unclear when the retrial of the eight officers will take place. All the suspects have denied any wrongdoing during Croatia's war for independence from Yugoslavia.

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