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Serb wins appeal against extradition to Croatia

A former Serb paramilitary commander won an appeal Wednesday against his extradition from Australia to face a war crimes trial in Croatia.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former Serb paramilitary commander won an appeal Wednesday against his extradition from Australia to face a war crimes trial in Croatia.

Dragan Vasiljkovic has denied accusations that he ordered subordinates to commit murder and fire on civilians during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and has been fighting extradition since 2006.

In February, a Federal Court judge dismissed his appeal of a lower court ruling backing the Croatian government's extradition request.

But on Wednesday, the full bench of the Federal Court ruled in favor of his appeal, concluding that Vasiljkovic had established there was a "substantial or real chance of prejudice" if he was extradited.

The judges ordered that he be released from custody, but delayed the order until Friday, giving lawyers acting for Croatia time to consider whether to appeal the court's decision.

Croatian Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic said his country will "swiftly" appeal the ruling to the High Court of Australia.

"We expect, and we have reasons to expect, that our appeal be upheld" and Vasiljkovic would eventually be extradited, Simonovic said in Zagreb.

He added the Australian court's decision was based on an outdated report on the Croatian judiciary.

Vasiljkovic, 54, an Australian citizen, has been in custody since he was arrested in 2006 at the request of the Croatian government.

The man once known as "Captain Dragan" is accused of instructing others to commit murder and killing civilians while commanding a rebel Serb paramilitary unit during the 1991-93 Serbo-Croat war.

In Croatia, the offenses carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.

Vasiljkovic came to Australia when he was 15, but returned to his homeland to train Croatian Serb rebels in 1991 when Serbs took up arms against Croatia's secession from the former Yugoslav federation.

He acknowledges serving as a Serb commander but has repeatedly denied committing war crimes during the Croatian conflict, which killed about 10,000 people.

Croatia's Simonovic said even if Vasiljkovic is not extradited, an Australian court can take over the case and prosecute him there.