Profile 26 Sep 17

Captain Dragan: Notorious Commander Loses Courtroom Battle

After leading rebel fighters in Croatia and starring in his own TV show in Serbia, Dragan Vasiljkovic eventually lost his bitter struggle against extradition from his adopted homeland Australia and was convicted of war crimes.

Sven Milekic BIRN Split
Dragan Vasiljkovic in court. Photo: BETA PHOTO/HINA/Mario Stromotic.

After a legal saga stretching back to 2004, when Croatia first issued a warrant for Dragan Vasiljkovic’s arrest, the wartime Serb paramilitary leader was convicted of war crimes at Split County Court on Tuesday and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The conviction of Vasiljkovic followed a long legal battle against extradition by the man who is popularly known in the Balkans as ‘Captain Dragan’, and was once the star of his own TV show in the 1990s in Serbia.

At the time of his arrest however, he was working as a golf instructor under the name Daniel Snedden in his adopted homeland of Australia.

Sixty-two-year-old Vasiljkovic was found guilty of responsibility for the beating and abuse of imprisoned Croatian soldiers and policemen in June and July 1991 at the fortress in Knin.

He was also convicted of involvement in planning an attack on the town of Glina and the surrounding villages in July 1991, when two civilians were killed and property looted and destroyed - although he was cleared of other crimes in the village of Bruska, near the town of Benkovac, in February 1993, when two Croatian soldiers were killed.

The court found that he committed his crimes while he was the commander of a Serbian Special Operations Unit sent to aid Serb paramilitaries in Croatia during their armed rebellion between 1991 and 1995. According to the indictment, he was the commander of the training centre for a special paramilitary unit called Alfa.

When his trial started in July 2016, he pleaded not guilty, and later told the court that he was only trying to defend Yugoslavia.

“I am not an aggressor or a war criminal. I am a defender of my homeland of Yugoslavia, which I really liked. We were all Yugoslavs,” he said, according to Croatian media reports.

From orphanage to frontline

The first two editions of a Serbian comicbook celebrating Vasiljkovic's ‘Knindze’ unit.

Vasiljkovic was born in Belgrade in 1954 and reportedly spent some time in an orphanage as a child before joining his émigré family in Australia when he was a teenager.

Newspaper reports in Australia said he served in the Australian Army for several years and was also convicted of owning a brothel in the 1980s.

He returned to Yugoslavia at the end of the 1980s and when Croatia’s war for independence began in 1991, he got involved in the fighting.

He was recruited by Serbia’s Interior Ministry and sent to Croatia to work as a military instructor in Golubici, near Knin, the epicentre of a rebel Croatian Serb uprising.

The Croatian Serb fighters he trained helped carve out a rebel enclave that was 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 with the authorities in Belgrade.

However, in its 2007 verdict convicting the former Republic of Serbian Krajina leader Milan Martic of wartime crimes, 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.

During the trial of former Serbian State Security Service head Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Franko Simatovic at the Mechanism for International Tribunals in The Hague, Vasiljkovic was also mentioned as someone who trained Serbian special units at a camp in Golubic, near Knin.

Vasiljkovic’s wartime exploits made him a popular figure in Serbia; at one point, he 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’.

But after testifying against Milosevic in The Hague, he moved back to Australia in 2004.

When The Australian newspaper tracked him down at a golf shop in Perth, where he was living in 2005, and asked him whether he committed war crimes during the Croatian conflict, he denied it.

“I won’t say I’m perfect, no, nobody’s perfect at killing people, but you know I’m sure I never killed a civilian, I’m sure I never killed a prisoner. I’m sure I never killed anybody that didn’t have to be killed,” he said.

The newspaper reported that Vasiljkovic, a yachtsman and golfer, was seen by the Serbian diaspora in Australia as a war hero, and that he travelled around raising money for his own war victims’ charity.

He even made a joke about his wartime alter ego: “I play golf with Captain Dragan,” he told The Australian’s reporter. “He’s a really nice guy.”

The newspaper then published an article alleging he was involved in war crimes; Vasiljkovic sued and lost.

A nine-year battle

Vasiljkovic's Interpol wanted notice.

Vasiljkovic was arrested in Australia in 2006 and spent the next nine years fighting extradition to Croatia. He filed a complaint about his lengthy detention to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016.

While trying to resist extradition, Vasiljkovic, who retained Serbian citizenship as well as Australian, repeatedly argued that he would not get a fair trial in Croatia.

For a while, he became the subject of a dispute between Croatian and Serbian politicians.

After an Australian court dismissed his 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.

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

But journalists who were in court for his trial in Split said they thought these concerns were misplaced.

“My impression is that he had a just trial; everyone who had to testify did so,” Ivica Profaca, an experienced Split-based journalist who followed the case for The Australian, told BIRN.

Profaca said the majority of defence witnesses spoke via video link from Belgrade, perhaps because some of them have “indictments or verdicts against them in Croatia”, he suggested.

“The judge, Damir Romac, properly led the process as a whole, stopping both sides when they ventured into waters that either weren’t of a legal nature or… in cases when the prosecution asked questions about something that was not the subject of the trial,” he said.

Profaca said that during the trial, Vasiljkovic often said that he did not recognising the court’s jurisdiction or existence of the Republic of Croatia.

He often referred to Croatia as “the NDH” - an acronym for the Croatian WWII Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia. According to Profaca, Vasiljkovic also referred to Croatian soldiers and policemen as Ustasa, the movement that created the NDH.

However he also said that “his conditions in jail in Split were great”, Profaca said, and that prison guards reacted promptly when he had health problems in August 2016, and saved his life.

As the trial came to a close, Vasiljkovic claimed that he had been subjected to “an oppressive fascist process”, insisting that his prosecution was politically motivated.

The Australian’s European Correspondent Jacquelin Magnay, who also reported on the trial, told BIRN however that the judge allowed Vasiljkovic to fully present his case, giving him the floor “in presenting extensive information regarding the case… much more than I’ve ever seen in trials”.

At the last hearing on Thursday, Magnay said, the judge agreed that Vasiljkovic could give a short overview of the whole trial, after which the defendant delivered a “four-hour-long” statement.

Back when the trial started, Vasiljkovic’s lawyer Goran Cvetic told BIRN that in his opinion, the indictment had been built “on shaky foundations”.

After years of legal wrangling, the court disagreed, and convicted Captain Dragan of war crimes.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus