Profile 20 Sep 16

Serb Paramilitary Captain Dragan’s Long Road to Court

Former Serbian paramilitary commander Dragan Vasiljkovic was working as a golf instructor in Australia, but after a decade battling extradition, he has gone on trial for war crimes in Croatia.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Dragan Vasiljkovic with a newspaper article accusing him of war crimes. Photo: Beta.

Dragan Vasiljkovic, widely known as ‘Captain Dragan’, finally went on trial on Tuesday at the county court in the Croatian coastal city of Split for war crimes allegedly committed while he was a paramilitary chief during the 1990s conflict.

The trial started after Vasiljkovic’s attempts to avoid extradition from Australia, where he had been working as a golf instructor under the name Daniel Snedden, ended in failure following almost ten years of court hearings.

The Croatian authorities first issued warrants for his arrest back in 2004. A demand for the extradition of Vasiljkovic, who has both Australian and Serbian citizenship, was then issued in January 2006.

He was finally extradited to Croatia in July 2015 after all his appeals failed.

The extradition process was complicated by Australian laws that forbid the extradition of the country’s citizens if they could face a prejudiced trial or be unjustly punished or detained because of their political opinions.

Vasiljkovic repeatedly argued that he would not get a fair trial in Croatia.

During the extradition process, he went on the run for 43 days after he was released while waiting for the decision of the Australian Supreme Court in March 2010. He was located and arrested in May 2010 and returned to custody.

Vasiljkovic is charged with the torture, mistreatment and killings of imprisoned Croatian soldiers and policemen in June and July 1991 at the fortress in Knin, and in February 1993 in Bruska.

He is also indicted for allegedly participating in planning an attack on the town of Glina and the surrounding villages in July 1991, when civilians were killed and property looted and destroyed.

When presented with the charges against him at Split county court in July, he pleaded not guilty.

Vasiljkovic is accompanied from the plane at Zagreb airport in July 2015. Photo: Beta

His lawyer Goran Cvetic also told BIRN that in his opinion, the indictment has been built “on shaky foundations”, noting that the identities of the two Croatian soldiers who are believed have died as a consequence of the attacks in Bruska are unknown.

“I guess that the Croatian authorities have the names of the missing in action and the records of missing persons by name. These people should have families [searching for them]. Apparently not,” he said.

Croatia-Serbia row

Before his extradition, Vasiljkovic became the subject of dispute between Croatian and Serbian politicians.

After an Australian court dismissed Vasiljkovic’s appeal against his extradition to Croatia in January 2015, the Serbian justice minister at the time, Nikola Selakovic, asked his Australian counterpart, Michael Keenan, to allow Belgrade to prosecute the former paramilitary.

According to Selakovic, Serbia was “fully prepared to conduct criminal proceedings”, arguing that Vasiljkovic would get a biased trial in Croatia.

After his extradition, Vasiljkovic was transferred to a remand prison in Split, where he waited almost a half a year – the maximum amount of time allowed before filing an indictment against a prisoner – before the local state attorney’s office indicted him for war crimes against Croatian civilians and prisoners of war this January.

Due to a heart condition, he was transferred to a hospital in August, where he underwent an operation.

He also filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee last Wednesday, claiming his extradition and his ten-year investigative detention in both Australia and Croatia were unlawful.

‘Ninjas from Knin’

Vasiljkovic, who was born in Belgrade in 1954, went to live in Australia as a teenager, where he legally took the name of Daniel Snedden. He joined the Australian army and worked as a military instructor in Africa and South America.

Snedden reverted to Dragan Vasiljkovic at the end of the 1980s, when he returned to the now dissolving Yugoslavia with the intention of building a business – without success. He was no more successful in politics when he stood as a presidential candidate in Serbia in 1992.

His past made him well known in nationalist circles and he was recruited by Serbia’s Interior Ministry and sent to Croatia as an instructor in Golubici, near Knin, the epicentre of a rebel Serb uprising in Croatia.

His wartime exploits made him a popular figure in Serbia; he even had his own TV show and a comic strip was published about him and his ‘Knindze’ unit, whose name was a portmanteau of the words ‘Knin’ and ‘ninja’.

The first two editions of the 'Knindze' comic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The fighters helped carve out a rebel enclave that was later proclaimed to be the Republic of Serbian Krajina, but was taken back by Croatian forces in 1995.

Vasiljkovic also instructed the notorious Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznjatovic, alias Arkan, and members of his Tigers paramilitary unit.

Indictments at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague have connected the Tigers directly to Slobodan Milosevic’s government, maintaining that they were financed out of Serbia’s state budget.

But when Vasiljkovic testified as a prosecution witness in 2003 at Milosevic’s trial in The Hague, he denied having had any connection to the authorities in Belgrade.

However, in its verdict convicting the former Republic of Serbian Krajina leader Milan Martic in 2007, the Tribunal said that Vasiljkovic “participated in the furtherance of the common criminal purpose of the joint criminal enterprise” alongside Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and other high-ranking political, military and intelligence officials from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After the Sydney-based newspaper The Australian published an article in September 2005 alleging Vasiljkovic’s involvement in war crimes, he sued, alleging defamation.

The newspaper flew in witnesses from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to testify in court, and the British journalist Anne McElvoy, then with The Times, also gave evidence via video link.

McElvoy said she interviewed Vasiljkovic in 1991 in Knin, where he allegedly told her: “I am not here to kill people, just to neutralize the enemy… When the Croat side uses hospitals or police stations in their villages as fortified positions, I’m sorry, I just have to massacre them.”

The court ruled in favour of the newspaper, accepting McElvoy’s words as evidence that the Serbian paramilitary commander had admitted to committing a massacre.

Vasiljkovic has continued to deny allegations that he was responsible for war crimes. As he told the county court in Split in July: “I don’t consider myself guilty.”

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