ZAGREB, Croatia — A Croatian court on Tuesday sentenced a former Serb paramilitary commander and Australian citizen to 15 years in prison for war crimes in the 1990s, including the killing and torture of prisoners.
Judges at the municipal court in the coastal town of Split said that Dragan Vasiljkovic, also known as Captain Dragan and Daniel Snedden, is guilty of war crimes committed while he commanded Croatian Serb rebels during the 1991-95 war when Serbs took up arms against Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia.
The 62-year-old Vasiljkovic, who was born in Serbia, went to Australia as a teenager, but returned to the Balkans to train Croatian Serb rebels in 1991. In Australia, he was an army reservist and a golf instructor.
Vasiljkovic was extradited from Australia in July 2015 after a 10-year legal battle against being handed over to Croatia’s judiciary. He became Australia’s first extradited war crimes suspect.
The three-judge Croatian court panel found Vasiljkovic guilty of two of the three charges, which included torturing and beating imprisoned Croatian police and army troops and commanding a special forces unit involved in the destruction of Croatian villages. He was found responsible for the death of at least two civilians.
“They were beating prisoners with their guns, … pushing gun barrels into their mouths,” judge Damir Romac said reading the verdict. “He (Vasiljkovic) did nothing to prevent this and punish the perpetrators.”
About 60 prosecution witnesses were questioned during the trial, including those who said they were tortured by Vasiljkovic.
Vasiljkovic, who was widely believed during the war to be working for Serbia’s secret service, has claimed innocence throughout the one-year trial, saying the whole process was rigged.
“This is an oppressive fascist process,” Vasiljkovic said during his closing statements last week. “Not only did I not commit any crimes that I am charged with, I can only ask why I was brought here and charged in the first place.”
Serbia’s Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin blasted Vasiljkovic’s conviction as a “mockery of truth.” Vulin accused Croatia of fueling tensions in the Balkans with the ruling.
The judges ruled that they will take into account the time Vasiljkovic served in detention in Australia and in a Croatian prison, meaning he has three-and-a-half years of his sentence remaining. His lawyers said they will appeal.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.