Vukovar: The ICTY’s release of war criminal Veselin Šljivančanin by Brian Gallagher

Published 17 November in Hrvatski Vjesnik (Australia)

18 November 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the Yugoslav army reducing Vukovar to rubble. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has failed to bring those responsible to justice. Only six figures were charged in relation to Vukovar, with many senior Yugoslav army figures left alone.* Possibly the most notorious case is that of Veselin Šljivančanin. He was convicted of crimes in relation to the notorious Ovcara massacre. After an unprecedented second appeal, his previous sentence of 17 years was reduced to ten. He was released earlier this year having served just 6 and a half years. The reasons for his release, as outlined by Judge Patrick Robinson, President of the ICTY, reveal just how much contempt the ICTY has for the victims of Vukovar and war crimes more generally.

ICTY prisoners can be reviewed for possible release after serving two thirds of their sentence. Having had his sentence reduced to ten years in December 2010, Sljivancanin applied for early release.

In his decision to release Sljivancanin, Judge Robinson points out that the Appeals Chamber “…observed that Mr. Sljivancanin’s aiding and abetting the torture of approximately 200 prisoners of war was an extremely serious crime.”  Robinson himself was thus “..of the view that Mr. Sljivancanin’s crimes are of a high gravity, and that this is a factor that weighs against granting him early release. “

However, due to ICTY practice with other prisoners he says that “…the amount of time that Mr. Sljivancanin has served militates in favour of his early release.” Simply serving some time is in his favour to be released.

Judge Robinson informs us of the views oft the view of the Deputy Commanding Officer of the United Nations Detention Unit,. Sljivancanin has shown respect to the staff, followed the rules, maintained ‘good relations’ with a ‘wide group’ of other prisoners.  Further, it would appear that he “…regularly assists in the library and has been heavily involved in the reorganization of the facility to the benefit of all detainees.”

He gets on well with his family, it seems and had apparently adjusted well to civilian life after being in the Yugoslav army committing war crimes.

What of his crimes, what remorse has he shown for his behavior? Apparently he has shown remorse for the events all over the ex-Yugoslavia, but not for his own crimes, as “.does not link the fate of the victims to his own actions.”  No remorse at all then.

Another ground for release examined by the judge was cooperation with prosecution. Unsurprisingly, there was none.

His lack of remorse alone would have prevented his release, one would have thought – but Sljivancanin was released anyway. Of course, given what he was convicted for, some might think he should never have been released.

Sljivancanin was released for showing ‘some’ rehabilitation i.e. he behaved well in prison. He had also served some time – as if serving time was some inconvenience which he was brave to suffer.  The gravity of Sljivancanin’s crimes, contrary to Robinson’s claims, counted for nothing – how else could he be released?

The feelings of the relatives of Sljivancanin’s victims were of course not considered – the ICTY and the human rights community seems to consider such people irrelevant.

The ICTY and its’human rights’ supporters keep telling people how such tribunals mean an end to impunity and so on. However, the message appears to be that if you are convicted for heinous war crimes, you can be released after a few years without showing any remorse. One might consider this attitude to be somewhat counter-productive in deterring future war crimes.

Earlier this year, Goran Hadzic was sent to The Hague to stand trial for Serbian crimes at Vukovar. Like all the other Vukovar related ICTY cases so far concluded, this one is likely to end badly. 20 years on, many of the victims and their relatives, will be remembering the horrors of Vukovar. One wonders how Hadzic will be marking this anniversary, awaiting his trial. Perhaps, if he has studied the reasons for releasing Sljivancanin, he will be ensuring he gets on well with staff and inmates and helping out in the prison library.

*Correction. This should have read as six cases, featuring nine individuals.

 

 

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