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Serb officer's murder acquittal overturned

The U.N. Yugoslav war crimes tribunal overturned the murder acquittal of a Serbian army officer on Tuesday, ruling that he did help kill 194 Croatian prisoners of war.
Former Yugoslav Army Col. Veselin Sljivancanin, left, and former Yugoslav Army Gen. Mile Mrksic, face a U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands on Tuesday. The court gave Sljivancanin 17 years in prison after overturning an aquittal on murder charges.Michael Kooren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.N. Yugoslav war crimes tribunal overturned the murder acquittal of a Serbian army officer on Tuesday, ruling in an appeal that he did help kill 194 Croatian prisoners of war and more than tripling his sentence.

The court gave Maj. Veselin Sljivancanin 17 years in prison, ruling that the 5-year sentence he received from a lower court was too lenient.

Sljivancanin was convicted in 2007 of enabling the beatings and torture of prisoners seized from a hospital in Vukovar, Croatia, in 1991 at the start of the Balkan wars. But he was acquitted of aiding and abetting murder.

Overturning that acquittal in a split decision Tuesday, the appellate judges in The Hague said Sljivancanin should have ignored his commander's order to leave the prisoners in the hands of Serb paramilitaries, because it was obvious they would be killed.

The tribunal's decision made no change in the 20-year sentence given to Sljivancanin's superior officer, Mile Mrksic, who gave him the order to abandon the prisoners taken to a pig farm in Ovcara outside Vukovar.

The destruction of the eastern Croatian town and the mass murder of patients and Croatian soldiers who sought refuge in the hospital was one of the defining moments of the 1991-95 wars that led to Yugoslavia's dissolution.

Sljivancanin was the security officer who supervised the evacuation of the hospital, the last building to fall to the Serbian army after a three-month siege that virtually leveled the town.

'Failure to act' contributed to murder
The evacuation was supposed to be have been monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but army forces blocked Red Cross officials while the prisoners were loaded onto buses and driven away.

In reversing the acquittal, the court said in a 3-2 decision that Sljivancanin was responsible for the prisoners' safety, and that his liability did not end when Mrksic gave orders to the army and the military police to withdraw from the pig farm, where more than 200 people were being held captive.

Sljivancanin had the obligation "not to allow the transfer of custody of the prisoners of a war to anyone without first satisfying himself that they would not be harmed," it said.

"His failure to act substantially contributed to the murder of the prisoners of war," said Presiding Judge Theodor Meron, reading the decision.

The tribunal dismissed Sljivancanin's claim that he was not at Ovcara when the beatings and murder happened, and the judges accepted the lower court's assessment that he had witnessed the torture meted out to the Croatians and other non-Serb prisoners.

More than 200 men were taken from the hospital, first to a Serb army barracks, then to the pig farm where paramilitary soldiers beat them with rifle butts, poles and chains through the night, according to the judgment.

After Mrksic ordered regular Serb forces to withdraw, local territorial defense forces and paramilitaries took the prisoners in small groups to a nearby area and shot them. Authorities later dug up 194 bodies from a mass grave.

The 2007 sentences for both officers had outraged the Croatian government.