Profile 08 Dec 17

The Never-Ending War Crimes Trial of Branimir Glavas

After 12 years of being prosecuted for the killings of Serb civilians in 1991 and five separate court verdicts, Croatian wartime general Branimir Glavas is still on trial – and he’s still a free man.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Branimir Glavas gestures to media outside Zagreb county court. Photo: Beta.

“I’m not guilty. They condemned an innocent man,” general Branimir Glavas said in 2010 after receiving news that the Croatian Supreme Court had sentenced him to eight years in prison for war crimes.

“If the judges of the Supreme Court have unequivocally found that I am guilty of brutal crimes against the civilian population at the time of the Homeland War [Croatia’s 1990s war], then the court should impose the maximum prescribed prison sentence [20 years] on me,” Glavas declared.

As the commander of the defence forces in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek, Glavas was found guilty of ordering the executions of seven, mostly Croatian Serb civilians in 1991. The court established that he founded and armed a special military unit known in Osijek under various names – the Protective Troop or Branimir’s Osijek Battalion – and acted as its effective commander.

Glavas’s legal marathon: timeline

July 2005: The state attorney’s office, DORH, confirms it has testimonies on the killing of Serbs in Osijek in 1991 and 1992

December 2005: Glavas interrogated in Osijek

June 2006: The state attorney’s office opens an investigation into Glavas

October 2006: Glavas arrested over the ‘Garage’ case and put in remand prison; DORH opens an investigation for the ‘Sellotape’ case

December 2006: Glavas released from remand, after a 37-days-long hunger strike from prison, and the investigation was stopped.

April 2007: DORH files an indictment for the ‘Sellotape’ case, Glavas again transferred to remand prison, where he starts a 24-day hunger strike

May 2007: DORH files an indictment for the ‘Garage’ case

October 2007: Glavas’s trial starts before Zagreb county court

November 2007: Glavas starts a 65-day hunger strike

January 2008: After parliament did not strip him of his immunity, Glavas is allowed to defend himself on bail

May 2009: Zagreb county court sentences Glavas to ten years in prison; the same day Glavas flees to Bosnia and Herzegovina

July 2010: Croatia’s Supreme Court upholds the 2009 conviction, lowering the sentence to eight years

December 2010: the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina confirms the verdict; Glavas is transferred to prison in Zenica and later Mostar

January 2015: Croatia’s Constitutional Court quashes Glavas’s final verdict

July 2016: Croatia’s Supreme Court quashes Glavas’s first-degree verdict

October 2017: Glavas’s trial starts again before Zagreb county court

 

His trial encompassed two cases, codenamed ‘Garage’ and ‘Sellotape’.

In the ‘Garage’ case, civilian Cedomir Vuckovic was forced to drink car battery acid in a garage in September 1991. When he ran out in pain, he was shot by Krunoslav Fehir, member of the 1st Battalion of Osijek Defenders, commanded by Glavas.

Vuckovic died from the consequences of the poisoning. Glavas then allegedly came from his nearby office and ordered that a second prisoner, Dordje Petkovic, should be executed.

In the ‘Sellotape’ case, Glavas’s unit arrested six civilians in November and December 1991 – Branko Lovric, Alija Sabanovic, Milutin Kutlic, Svetislav Vukajlovic, Bogdan Pocuca and an unidentified woman in Osijek – then tortured them in a basement in the city. They were then brought to the Drava riverbank, where the unit members executed them, with their hands tied behind their backs with sellotape.

One civilian, Radoslav Ratkovic, was shot in the cheek and threw into the river, but managed to survive and swam away. Through his direct subordinate Gordana Getos Magdic, Glavas ordered that someone from the unit go to the hospital and execute Ratkovic – although the order was not carried out.

Despite all the facts about the crimes established by Zagreb county court at the first trial in 2009 and the confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2010, Glavas is a still a free man and is currently standing over the two cases before Zagreb county court again, 26 years after the crimes.

Some commentators have suggested that his political influence, which was bolstered by the party he co-founded, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ - an influence which he still retains as an MP in Croatia’s parliament - is one reason why there has been no final verdict yet.

When the retrial started in October in Zagreb, Glavas again pleaded not guilty. He is appearing in court again on Friday.

High-ranking politician, ‘ruler’ of Osijek

Glavas in the Croatian parliament. Photo: Beta.

Glavas, now 61, is no longer occupying major positions of power, but he has been a serious political force, particularly in his birthplace, Osijek. He was one of the founders of the centre-right HDZ and an associate of the party’s leader and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

He also took control over the Osijek-based daily newspaper Glas Slavonije, as Drago Hedl, a veteran journalist from Osijek who was its editor-in-chief and has written extensively about Glavas, recalls.

Biography: a loyal party soldier

Born in Osijek in 1956, Glavas graduated in law and was one of the founders of the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ on the eve of the first democratic multi-party elections in Croatia in 1990, when it was still part of socialist Yugoslavia. The HDZ ruled Croatia during the 1990s, until the 2000 general elections.

Glavas was a high-ranking HDZ member, and an associate from the beginning of the party’s leader and first democratically-elected Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Between 1993 and 2000, he was the prefect of Osijek-Baranja County, and later an MP.

After Tudjman died in 1999, Glavas remained close to the new HDZ leader, Ivo Sanader who turned it into a pro-EU party after he won the 2003 general elections.

Ahead of the local elections in 2005, Glavas gets into conflict with Sanader. The HDZ leadership ousted him from the party the same year, andon Glavas founded the regionally-oriented Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja, HDSSB.

With the HDSSB, Glavas manages to be elected to parliament at three general elections, in 2007, 2015 and 2016.

 

Glas Slavonije was state-owned but received information in July 1991 that it would be privatised and that Glavas would be installed as president of the supervisory board. To register his presence in the newspaper, Glavas turned up in the newsroom accompanied by soldiers.

“He came in a uniform with armed men to hold the first meeting of the new supervisory board. I knew that they would soon fire me and the director of the newspaper, which is what they did at that very first session,” Hedl said, who is also an occasional contributor to BIRN.

In 1991, Glavas was the secretary of Osijek’s Secretariat for People’s Defence, which made him the commander of Osijek defence against the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA and Serbian paramilitaries who started the attacks on the city from late August that year.

According to Hedl, Glavas soon exerted his grip over Osijek, controlling the police and the economy as well as the media.

“He was the most powerful man in Osijek at the time. Because of his direct clashes with people who disagree with him, he has created an image of himself as the ruler of Osijek, which he basically was,” Hedl explained.

“I remember how his name was only whispered in public. You won’t believe it, but people talking in a bar would start a sentence speaking normally and then whisper when they would mention Glavas’s name; even if the sentence [they were saying] was not about any potential crime of Glavas’s,” he added.

In 1993 and 1994, some journalists started to notice that some of Osijek’s inhabitants, mostly Serbs, had actually gone missing instead of just fleeing Croatia.

Relatives of victims killed in the crimes codenamed ‘Sellotape’ and ‘Garage’ started to speak about the crimes, although the police were still reluctant to give any information to media or start investigations into the alleged perpetrators.

Hedl first started to report about crimes attributed to Glavas during the war, when he was a correspondent for Split-based daily Slobodna Dalmacija, after he was sacked from Glas Slavonije.

“Back then, after one of my stories for [Croatian anti-establishment weekly] Feral Tribune, Glavas told me, through a mutual acquaintance, an MP at the time, Ivica Vrkic, that he would ‘turn me to ash and dust’,” Hedl recalled.

However, until Glavas was ousted from the HDZ in 2005 - he then formed a party of his own, the regionally-oriented Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja, HDSSB - there were no serious investigations into the crimes he allegedly committed in Osijek.

Investigations were opened in June 2006, and Glavas was first arrested in October 2006 over the ‘Garage’ case. While on remand, he went on a hunger strike and after 37 days he was released from prison, and the investigation was stopped.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the ‘Sellotape’ case was opened, and an indictment filled in April 2007, followed by an indictment for the ‘Garage’ case in May 2007. He was again held on remand, and went on two more hunger strikes.

The trial started in October 2007, and Glavas pleaded not guilty.

Alleged pressure on prosecution witnesses

Glavas after his release from Mostar prison in 2015. Photo: Beta.

Jelena Djokic Jovic from the Zagreb-based NGO Documenta - Centre for the Dealing with the Past followed Glavas’s trial from the beginning at Zagreb county court, and claims it was initially marked by pressure on prosecution witnesses.

Another Zagreb-based NGO, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, filed a criminal complaint against Glavas in 2012, because the identity of a protected witness had been revealed on the branimirglavas.com website four years earlier.

Jean-Charles Gardetto, the rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, also reported in 2011 how Glavas revealed the identity of a protected witness.

Another HDZ veteran, Vladimir Seks, who at the time of the crimes the chief of the regional crisis headquarters for Slavonia and Baranja, played important role in Glavas’s trial.

Many still speculate that Seks was Glavas’s superior and that he must have had information about the crimes attributed to Glavas’s units. At the trial, Glavas even claimed that Seks was “God on Earth”.

But Seks claimed in court that he was only “a civilian in a military uniform”, and that Glavas’s military role was exaggerated too.

Seks even alleged that “a fifth column” of Yugoslav intelligence agencies operated in Osijek at the time, dressing in Croatian military uniforms and executing Serb civilians.

But despite Seks’s testimony, Zagreb county court sentenced Glavas to eight years in prison in May 2009.

However, Glavas, who has both Croatian and Bosnian citizenship, crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina just before the verdict was announced. A deal was then made that he would be tried in a Bosnian court after the final verdict in Croatia.

Croatia’s Supreme Court upheld the 2009 conviction in July 2010, then a Bosnian court confirmed the verdict, and Glavas was jailed in Mostar.

However, the Constitutional Court quashed Glavas’s final verdict in January 2015. The main reason was the use of the wrong protocol of the Geneva Conventions.

The court argued that protocol for the protection of victims of non-international conflicts should have been used for all crimes attributed to Glavas before October 8, 1991 – the date until which Croatian courts consider Croatia a part of Yugoslavia – and after that date, the protocol for the protection of victims of international conflicts should have been used.

At a retrial before the Supreme Court in July 2016, the first-instance verdict was quashed for the same reason.

Djokic Jovic explained that these protocols serve to protect victims, not perpetrators, so Glavas should not have been acquitted on this basis. The court’s decision was “politically motivated”, she argued.

In February 2015, Glavas returned to Osijek, where his HDSSB party threw him a welcome-home party in the city centre.

On that occasion, Glavas told his supporters that he had “recharged [my] batteries... for further challenges and struggles”.

Many connected this statement with the victims forced to drink car battery acid in the ‘Garage’ case. The Youth Initiative for Human Rights claimed it was an incitement to violence.

Meanwhile, Glavas again entered parliament at the general elections in November 2015 with his HDSSB.

Then, at a retrial, the Supreme Court decided in July 2016 that his case should start from the beginning again before the county court in Zagreb.

Although the Supreme Court again established at its retrial that the evidence disputed by the defence were obtained legally, it also noted that the county court could discuss the validity of all the evidence from the beginning, so the defence can raise its objections again.

The process restarted before Zagreb county court in October, 12 years since Glavas was ousted from the HDZ.

Glavas renews his HDZ connections

Glavas in court in October. Photo: Beta/Hina/Denis Ceric/MO.

Although he criticised the HDZ for years, Glavas has now revived his relations with his old party. The current HDZ-led government relies a lot on his vote in parliament when important laws are being voted upon, or when the government tries to fend off no-confidence votes initiated by the opposition.

“Despite being just a shadow of the man he once was, Glavas is a man with an incredible instinct for self-preservation, always thinking five moves in advance when it comes to his well-being,” Hedl said.

“I think Glavas’s case paints a picture of Croatia’s judiciary,” Hedl said, suggesting that the numerous trials and retrials, as well as the length of the entire process, suggest that the judiciary has dealt with the case poorly.

From the beginning, the state attorney’s office and the courts had problems prosecuting Glavas, who in 2006 was an HDZ MP, because a parliamentary committee was initially reluctant to strip him of his immunity for both prosecution and detention.

Because the committee did not strip Glavas of his immunity from being held in remand prison, some feared it would be easier for him to influence or even intimidate witnesses.

Court decisions then prolonged the process for years, leading some experts to claim that this was a result of Glavas’s political influence on the judiciary.

In March this year, the Supreme Court sentenced Osijek entrepreneur Drago Tadic to two years in prison for trying to bribe court officials to influence the Glavas verdict in 2010. Tadic, who is close to Glavas, was working with others including a member of Glavas’s HDSSB party, Ivan Drmic.

Hedl thinks that although the HDSSB only has one MP in parliament - Glavas himself - his vote is important for the HDZ to remain in power and maintain its fragile hold on government. This factor could even influence the retrial of Glavas at Zagreb county court, he suggests.

Hedl also points to the fact that the start of the trial was postponed in July because a parliamentary committee did not immediately strip him of his immunity to stand trial.

Glavas may not be the political player he used to be, but observers will be watching closely to see how his latest court battle develops, 26 years after the victims died in Osijek.

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