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Sljivancanin Appeals Conviction Reversed
Sentence of former Yugoslav army officer reduced from 17 to ten years by judges.
By Rachel Irwin - International Justice - ICTY
TRI Issue 673,
10 Dec 10
In an unprecedented review of their own judgement, appeals judges at the Hague t
ribunal this week reversed the murder conviction and slashed the prison term of
ex-Yugoslav army, JNA, officer Veselin Sljivancanin.
It is the first time an appeals judgement has been reviewed – and subsequently cha
nged - in the history of the tribunal.
Sljivancanin’s lawyers had requested that the appeals judgement be reviewed after
Miodrag Panic, the former chief-of-staff of Sljivancanin’s unit, contacted them fo
llowing the May 2009 appeals verdict.
In it, judges had overturned Sljivancanin’s acquittal for aiding and abetting the
murder of Croat and other non-Serb prisoners being held at an Ovcara farm follow
ing the fall of the Croatian town of Vukovar to Serb forces in November 1991.
Sljivancanin’s original prison sentence of five years – for aiding and abetting the
torture of the prisoners – was more than tripled to 17 years on appeal. This week
judges reduced it to ten years.
In their 2009 judgement, the appeals chamber found that Sljivancanin had been in
formed by his commander and co-accused, Mile Mrksic, that JNA protection for the
prisoners at Ovcara had been withdrawn and that Sljivancanin was consequently a
ware that there was a risk of local Serb forces killing the prisoners.
Mrksic, a former JNA colonel, was convicted of responsibility for the prisoners’ m
urder, as well as their torture and cruel treatment.
According to the 2009 appeals judgement, the finding that Sljivancanin was respo
nsible for aiding and abetting the prisoners’ murder was based on the conclusion “th
at Mrksic must have told Sljivancanin that he had withdrawn the JNA protection f
rom the prisoners of war held at Ovcara”.
However, at a pre-review hearing held in June 2010, Panic told the court that he
was present during a conversation between Sljivancanin and Mrksic on the evenin
g of November 20, 1991, which was after Mrksic would have issued the order for t
he JNA troops to withdraw from the farm.
Panic said that during that conversation, Mrksic had not told Sljivancanin about
the order to withdraw.
“Had Mrksic told Sljivancanin that the security detail had been withdrawn, I would
have been first to react,” Panic told Stephane Bourgon, one of Sljivancanin’s defen
ce lawyers, at the hearing.
“I would have said, ‘What has come up?’And I’m certain that Sljivancanin would have done
the same thing,” he continued.
This week, appeals judges found that Panic’s testimony “was credible … coherent and re
asonably detailed, and his demeanour did not suggest that he was trying to conce
al the truth”.
Judges addressed the prosecution contention that Panic could never admit to know
ing about the order to withdraw the troops from Ovcara, because that would mean
he did nothing to stop it.
They noted that as a former witness in the trial, Panic was “doubtless aware” that t
he prosecution might draw attention to “his own potential criminal liability”.
“Had Mr Panic been motivated by the desire to reduce the risk of criminal prosecut
ion, as the prosecution suggests, he would presumably not have contacted Mr Slji
vancanin’s defence team and offered to testify in review proceedings,” Presiding Jud
ge Theodor Meron said, delivering the December 8 review judgement.
The prosecution also claimed that Panic’s account of what happened that night, esp
ecially regarding the actions of JNA officers, was “at odds” with the army’s official
doctrine.
However, the appeals chamber noted this week that even the trial judges acknowle
dged that there was “frequent non-observance of normal JNA procedures and standard
s, at all levels…[and] in these circumstances, the variations between the actions
Mr Panic describes and those prescribed by JNA doctrine do not necessarily under
mine Mr. Panic’s credibility with respect to the conversation”.
As a result of these reasons, Judge Meron said, “The appeals chamber vacates the a
dditional conviction for murder.”
The 17-year prison sentence was slashed to ten years, because the judges found t
hat the original five-year sentence given by trial judges “did not adequately refl
ect the level of gravity of the crimes committed by Mr Sljivancanin”.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.