Repeated trial against the defendant Jovo Begović for a war crime against civilians – described and punishable pursuant to Article 120, paragraph 1 of the Basic Criminal Law of the Republic of Croatia (hereinafter: the OKZ RH), was conducted before the War Crimes Council of the Sisak County Court.
The first criminal procedure against Jovo Begović was conducted before the Sisak District Court. The verdict No. K-10/93 of 27 April 1993 was passed, in which the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was arrested in Germany and, on the basis of an Interpol arrest warrant, extradited to the Republic of Croatia. He filed a request for re-opening of the procedure. The Extra-Trail Chamber of the Sisak County Court, at the session held on 17 March 2006, passed the Ruling No. Kv-53/06, which granted Jovo Begović’s request for re-opening of the criminal procedure, quashed the verdict and reversed the case to the investigation stage.
On 21 July 2006, the Sisak County State’s Attorney’s Office (hereinafter: the ŽDO) issued the indictment No. K-DO-12/06 against the defendant Jovo Begović for a war crime committed against civilians in Petrinja on 2, 16 and 21 September 1991.
On 21 July 2006, the Sisak County State’s Attorney’s Office issued the indictment No. K-DO-12/06 against the defendant Jovo Begović. The defendant is charged that on 2, 16 and 21 September 1991 in Petrinja, during the artillery attacks on Petrinja commanded by Slobodan Tarbuk, commander of the 622nd motorized JNA brigade, in the capacity of commander of the 1st division of 82 mm mortars which was a part of the 1st motorized battalion of the 622nd motorized JNA brigade located at the polygon of the “Vasilj Gaćeša” military barracks in the area of Gavrilović Kosa, although aware that there were no HV units or other military units that could attack the military barracks in Petrinja, nor there were military units that could defend the town of Petrinja against attacks, the defendant, having received the order by the mortar squad commander Đuro Samardžija to attack the town of Petrinja and its civilian population, complied to that order. Thus, contrary to the provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention from 12 August 1949 relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in the Time of War and Article 51 of the 2nd Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention, the defendant issued the order to mortar operators in the composition of his division to open fire at civilian population in the town of Petrinja and at the housing, utility and other important facilities in Petrinja. His subordinate soldiers carried out his order and several inhabitants of Petrinja were killed during the attacks. The following persons were killed: Nikola Lokner, Štef Bučar, Đuro Marković, Milan Klarić and Alojz Mouča. The following persons sustained severe and light physical injuries: Ramiz Halerić, Rajko Đurinčić, Mirko Bunjan, Angelina Banadinović, Nikola Drakulić, Đuro Vujatović, Rajko Vujaković, Branko Ceković, Ljubica Ceković, Janko Kovačević, Marijan Popović, Zvonko Dumbović, Ivan Vidović and others. During those attacks, several housing, utility, religious and other facilities in the town of Petrinja were devastated and destroyed, including almost all housing buildings in the centre of Petrinja, the Petrinja Municipal Court, the “Saint Katarina’s” church, the “Saint Lovro’s” church and other facilities.
The defendant is charged that, having violated the rules of the international law at the time of an armed conflict, he killed civilians whereby he committed a criminal act against humanity and international law – a war crime against civilians, described and punishable in Article 120, paragraph 1 of the OKZ RH.
During the repeated procedure, the factual description of the indictment was modified on two occasions on 23 April 2007. The modified indictment charged the defendant that on 2 September 1991, in the capacity of a mortar operator, having received the order by the mortar squad commander Đuro Samardžija to attack Petrinja and its civilian population, he complied to that order which resulted in the death of Štef Bučar, injuries to several persons and destruction of several housing, utility, religious and other facilities in the town of Petrinja, including almost all housing buildings in the centre of Petrinja, the Petrinja Municipal Court, the “Saint Katarina’s” church, the “Saint Lovro’s” church and other facilities.
The procedure was conducted before the War Crimes Council comprising: Judge Melita Avedić, Council President, Judge Višnja Vukić, Council member, Judge Danko Kovač, Council member.
The first two hearings were held on 1 December 2006 and 19 December 2006. The evidence procedure was completed on 23 April 2007.
On 25 April 2007, the defendant Jovo Begović was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
The Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia (at the public session held on 30 January 2008) upheld the verdict of the Sisak County Court in which the defendant Begović was found guilty and sentenced to 5 (five) years in prison.
The trial that was conducted against Jovo Begović in absentia at the Sisak County Court in 1993 is an example of a farcical court procedure in which the defendant’s right to defence was flagrantly violated. Jovo Begović was at the time charged and sentenced to 20 years in prison without evidence because, as commander of the mortar division, he allegedly issued the order to shell civilian population in Petrinja. The court-appointed defence counsel failed to lodge an appeal against this verdict with the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia.
Following the repeated investigation, the County State’s Attorney’s Office issued an indictment with identical factual description – commanding over a mortar division and issuing orders to shell civilians in Petrinja, which it was unable to prove and, therefore, at the end of the evidence procedure the ŽDO dismissed these charges.
In the repeated procedure, the Council passed a decision that Jovo Begović was guilty because, on the incriminating day, he was operating a mortar which shelled Petrinja. The decision was based on linked circumstantial evidence, whereby the Council dismissed the evidence provided by the defence that on that particular day the defendant was ill. It is up to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia to adjudicate whether the decision on dismissing the evidence by the defence was passed on the basis of legally established facts.
This trial warns that repeating the farcically conducted in absentia procedures before the same county judicial bodies is, from the very beginning, stigmatized by previous biases and the efforts invested in the course of the repeated procedure to, at least partially, „cover up“ the omissions and violations of the rules of fair trial committed in the previous procedure. Therefore, we deem those to be serious reasons which require that the repeating of procedures in such cases is delegated to war crime investigation centres.
The War Crimes Council of the Sisak County Court passed a verdict in the repeated procedure in which Jovo Begović was found guilty of committing a war crime against civilians because, in the capacity of operator in the 82 mm mortar division he complied to the order issued by his commander Đuro Samardžija and on 2 September 1991 performed an attack against civilian population in the town of Petrinja which resulted in the death of Stjepan Bučar and severe physical injuries sustained by Ramiz Halerić, Angelina Banadinović, Đuro Vujatović and Zvonko Dumbović, as well as devastation and destruction of several housing, utility and religious facilities, including the housing buildings in the centre of Petrinja, the Petrinja Municipal Court, the “Saint Katarina’s” church and the “Saint Lovro’s” church. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison.
The first criminal procedure against Jovo Begović and four other defendants (Milorad Babić, Ranko Tarbuk, Šimo Podunavac and Budimir Jovanovski) was conducted before the Sisak District Court during 1993. The investigation and the court procedure were conducted in the defendants’ absence because they were located at the occupied area and therefore unavailable to the prosecution bodies of the Republic of Croatia.
In the verdict No. K-10/93 of 27 April 1993, Jovo Begović was found guilty that, in the capacity of commander of the 1st mortar division, he ordered the artillery attack on Petrinja, i.e. he ordered non-selective and excessive shelling of civilian facilities in the town of Petrinja which resulted in deaths and injuries of several persons and the material damage of large proportions. Together with four other defendants, Begović was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The procedure conducted during 1993 at the Sisak District Court was, in our opinion, characterized by the following facts:
1. The indictment against Jovo Begović for command responsibility was issued without evidence (the only witness who had direct information about the defendant’s role in the incriminating activities claimed both during the investigation and before the court that the defendant was merely operating a mortar).
2. Without a single piece of evidence, the Court found the defendant Jovo Begović guilty of ordering the 1st mortar division to shell Petrinja and sentenced him to a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison (the one and the same witness who had direct information about the defendant’s role in the incriminating activities claimed before the court that the defendant was merely operating a mortar).
3. The court-appointed defence counsel, Hamdija Urlić, failed to lodge an appeal against the first-instance verdict (a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison) with the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia and, therefore, the verdict became final.
After his arrest on the basis of an international arrest warrant, Jovo Begović was extradited to the RoC. Pursuant to the provision of Article 412 of the Law on Criminal Procedure (hereinafter: the ZKP), the procedure was repeated starting from the investigation stage.
The indictment which was issued by the County State’s Attorney’s Office after the repeated investigation again charged Jovo Begović with commanding over the 1st mortar squad and issuing orders to shell civilian targets in Petrinja. To support this indictment, the County State’s Attorney’s Office again provided only one direct witness who, on the other hand, claimed that Jovo Begović was a mortar operator, not a commander. The ŽDO provided as evidence written statement by a person who claimed that the defendant was commander of a mortar unit, but the ŽDO did not call this person to take the witness stand, i.e. it failed to obtain his address! The ŽDO dismissed charges that the defendant was a commander only after the completion of the evidence procedure before the Court.
During the main hearing before the War Crimes Council, we did not notice violations of procedural provisions. The Council acknowledged all evidence proposals submitted by the parties in the procedure. The sentencing verdict, that the defendant received and carried out the order and that as a mortar operator he shelled civilians and civilian targets in Petrinja, was passed (in the Court’s assessment) on the basis of the following linked circumstantial evidence – that the defendant was a member of the squad in which he performed the function of mortar operator, that on 2 September 1991 the mortar that he operated was active and that the defendant was in the barracks at the time. The evidence that the defendant received order by commander Đuro Samardžija and that the victims suffered because of that particular mortar’s activities were not presented during this procedure.
However, we are of the opinion that the key issue here is how the Supreme Court will assess the credibility of the statement, as well as of the written confirmation, in which the defendant proved that at the time of the incriminating event he was ill and, therefore, was not able to operate a mortar.
The defence counsels did not propose additional evidence or witnesses with regard to other elements on which the defence was based.
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