Croatian ex-assistant interior minister rejects accusations as trial gets under way.
Tomislav Mercep, a former Croatian assistant interior minister, denied war crimes charges and called on senior wartime officials to testify in his favour as his trial began in Zagreb on Friday.
The indictment charges Mercep with responsibility for the killing of 43 civilians and the disappearance of three more in the autumn and winter of 1991.
Mercep has been charged with personally ordering the unlawful capture, torture and killing of civilians from October 8, 1991 until mid-December of the same year in and around Zagreb and in Kutina and Pakrac in central Croatia.
According to the indictment, his police unit illegally captured 52 people, killing 43 of them, while three dissapeared and six survived torture.
Zagreb county prosecutor Jurica Ilic read the indictment at the start of the trial, detailing murders, torture and plunder allegedly committed by members of Mercep's unit.
After pleading not guilty, Mercep requested that high Croatian wartime officials testify as part of his defence. Among those he named were high officials of the then-ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Vladimir Seks and Ivan Jarnjak, former prime minister Franjo Greguric, former parliament speaker Zarko Domljan and ex-security service bosses Josip Perkovic and Smiljan Reljic. Mercep also requested that popular TV anchor Aleksandar Stankovic testify, because he once interviewed Mercep.
Relatives of the victims were at the Zagreb County Court for the trial, as were a few Mercep supporters.
Among the victims named in the indictment are Mihajlo Zec, his wife Marija and their 12-year-old daughter Aleksandra, who were murdered on the night of December 7, 1991 in a forest near Zagreb.
The murder of the Zec family, who were Serb civilians living in the Croatian capital, is considered by many to be one of the cruelest war crimes committed by Croatian forces.
The family was murdered in cold blood far from the frontline. Aleksandra Zec was shot in the head. The killers were captured and confessed to the crime but they were released due to a procedural mistake and never stood trial.
Some of them advanced in their military careers and were honoured by presidential medal. One became a member of the military's presidential guard.
After 1991, Mercep was appointed an advisor in the Croatian interior ministry.
Despite independent media reports about war crimes committed by his police unit, he remained at large and was a prominent political figure until recently. He led a political party and influential war veterans' organisation and even ran for Croatian president in 2000.
He has been in custody since he was arrested on war crimes charges in December 2010.
The case got under way despite concerns about Mercep's ill health. Court medical expert Vesna Šeric declared that he was fit to take part in the trial.
The next session has been scheduled for March 16, when relatives of the victims are due to testify. It is expected that former high officials could testify in April.
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