Vasiljković (middle) with Savo Štrbac (right)
|Native name||Драган Васиљковић|
12 December 1954 |
Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia
|Years of service||1991–1995|
|Battles/wars||Croatian War of Independence|
Dragan Vasiljković (Serbian Cyrillic: Драган Васиљковић, born 12 December 1954) nicknamed Captain Dragan (Serbian: Kapetan Dragan/Капетан Драган) was a founder and captain of the Serbian paramilitary unit called the Knindže (Knin ninjas, Red berets). Currently imprisoned in Australia, he is accused of war crimes by the Republic of Croatia, wanted by Interpol. In March 2010, the High Court of Australia ordered him to prison in order to extradite him to Croatia to face prosecution for his alleged crimes. Dragan Vasiljković was arrested again in Australia on 12 May 2010 after being on the run for six weeks following a court ruling approving his extradition to Croatia for war crimes, among others for Knin camp.
Dragan Vasiljković was born on 12 December 1954 in a Serbian Orthodox family in Belgrade. His father Živorad died in a motorcycle accident while Dragan was still young. At the age of 3, he was briefly placed in foster home Dragutin Filipović Jusa because his mother could not raise three children on her own.
In 1967 he went to Australia with his mother and two siblings under the name Daniel Snedden. After he finished high school in Melbourne he worked in a photo shop. He spent 4 years in the Australian Army's reserve unit 4th/19th Prince of Wales's Light Horse. After his military service, he served as a weapons instructor in Africa and South America. He was sailing around the world and stayed in Serbia in 1988 where he set up a boat and airplane charter business. He was convicted of criminal charges in relation to brothel ownership in Elsternwick, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia during the 1980s. He also worked as a golf instructor in Australia.
He returned to Belgrade in May 1990, as Croatia held its first democratic parliamentary elections. In Belgrade, Captain Dragan met Saša Medaković, one of the leaders of the barricades in Krajina following the "Log Revolution" in August. Medaković was a friend of Knin chief of police Milan Martić (later convicted of war crimes at The Hague), and was an employee of Krajina state security. Captain Dragan visited Krajina in the autumn 1990. There, he met Martić and claimed that the defence of Krajina appeared "very disorganised". He thus decided to help organise the Krajina defence. On his return to Belgrade, he attempted to gather support for his effort, and became a member of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement. He then returned to the United States to complete his aviator training.
During the March 1991 Belgrade upheaval when the Serbian Renewal Movement's challenge to the government was met with tanks in the streets, Captain Dragan was compelled to return there. Again, Milovanov had him in contact with Serbian State Security personnel, among them Franko Simatović. Simatović told him of his Krajina-related activities that if his bosses were to learn about it, he would probably be arrested and dismissed. On 4 April, Captain Dragan went to Krajina to work for Milan Martić.
On 25 June 1991, Croatia proclaimed its independence; soon after, war broke out in Croatia. He served during the Croatian War of Independence under the newly created Republic of Serbian Krajina as a volunteer; International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia prosecutors claim that this service took place under Serbian police auspices, and media even reported that he claimed this during his testimony at the Slobodan Milošević trial in 2003. Milošević asked him of this, and to this he replied "I was speaking exclusively of the Service of Krajina, the Police of Krajina or the Army of Krajina or the JNA until the Vance plan".
Asked if "at any time was there a unit of the MUP (Ministry of the Internal Affairs) of Serbia?" in Krajina with him, he replied that Jovica Stanisic once made an informal visit and Frenki Simatović came three or four times. He was asked if Stanisic and Simatovic ever gave him any orders. He replied that they did not and were in no position to, and did not know nor were they qualified to know.
He commanded special units known as Red Berets (not to be confused with the Special Operations Unit or JSO founded in Serbia in 1996) or Knindže after the Krajina's capital of Knin and ninja fighters. He trained units at Krajina's Golubić training camp for which he was allegedly paid by the State Security Service of Serbia; he denied this at the Milosevic trial, despite his role as a prosecution witness. He added that the only time that the Serbian State Security paid him was for a 28-day stint in 1997 "to monitor exercises"; his fee was 2,200 dinars. He was allied with Interior Minister Milan Martić in his power struggle with president Milan Babić, whom he described as "dishonest, a man who was not of his word." Martić, in contrast, he considered to be "a man of honour and a man of his word." In November 1991, Babić called Vojislav Šešelj to Knin to help him thwart what he believed to be a coup attempt being planned by Captain Dragan himself. According to Šešelj, "Captain Dragan interfered and started a rebellion among the army ranks", and organised a rally of military personnel. Šešelj toured the front lines and in the media explained to people that "those who want internal conflicts while an armed clash is still going on cannot be friends of the Serb people." The rally, Šešelj said, proved a failure and Babic remained in power. Šešelj also testified at the Milosevic trial that Captain Dragan had a training camp in Golubic. Vasiljković ran for president of Serbia in 1992, placing fourth with 1.86% of the vote.
During the war, he founded the Fond Kapetan Dragan aimed at helping victims of war. Vasiljković became a type of folk hero to some over the course of the war. Nationalist Serbian singer Boro Drljača released a song titled Kapetan Dragan in 1991.
Life in Serbia
After the end of combat in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vasiljković returned to Serbia where he lived for several years.Vasiljković was involved in the Serbian Renewal Movement. He maintained his friendship with Franko Simatović, and in 2001 stated that he would defend him in court if necessary. Simatović was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2003. Vasiljković reemerged in the spotlight after he testified against Slobodan Milošević in 2004 at the ICTY, and subsequently moved back to Perth, Western Australia.
Allegation of war crimes
In September 2005 an article in The Australian newspaper accused Dragan Vasiljković of war crimes as a Serbian paramilitary commander between 1991 and 1994. Vasiljković made a short return to Serbia and held a press conference in Belgrade before returning to Australia. He then lodged a public defamation case against the publishing company Nationwide News for the article. In December 2009 the court ruled in favor of Nationwide News and ordered Vasiljković to pay them $1.2 million.
Vasiljković was arrested on the basis of a Croatian warrant on 19 January. He is accused by the Republic of Croatia of being responsible for soldiers under his command allegedly torturing, beating and killing captured members of Croatian Army and Police between June and July 1991 in a prison on the fortress in Knin, and also for making plans to attack and take over the Glina Police station, a near city village Jukince and the villages Gornji i Donji Viduševac in February 1993 at Benkovac (in agreement with the commander of the tank unit JNA). It is alleged during that attack, against the Geneva convention, civil buildings were damaged and ruined, Croatian citizens were forced to escape, their property requirements of as robbed and civilians (among them was a foreign journalist) were wounded and killed. Those accusations were made public after the newspaper The Australian reported a story about him. Dragan subsequently sued The Australian for defamation. In July 2007, the Supreme Court held that 6 out of 10 imputations in that article were defamatory (The Australian – Majority rules Dragan defamed). However, in December 2009, a judge ruled that Captain Dragan "committed torture and rape" and that The Australian article from 2005 proved that Vasiljković participated and committed the allegations against him. Vasiljković rejects the claims, and will appeal the ruling.
The ICTY Hague Tribunal had named Vasiljković as a "participant in a joint criminal enterprise" against Croats and other non-Serbs in the Martic decision, but did not request his arrest. He gave evidence against Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague without immunity. All of the others named are either already on trial at the Hague or at large. In 2005, ICTY spokesperson Florence Hartmann announced that Vasiljković had been under investigation, but that it had stopped due to the mandate on the tribunal to finish its work.
In December 2006, Vasiljković's bid to prevent his extradition hearing from going ahead failed in the Sydney Magistrates Court. His grounds of defense were that as a Serbian Captain, he believed that he would be facing a biased Croatian Court and that no evidence of the allegations are required under the Extradition Act 1988 (House of Commons Extradition Requirements – Section 10) for an Australian citizen to be extradited.
Already in June 2006, the High Court dismissed an application seeking to declare the Extradition Act and Regulations with its "no evidence" model invalid. The High Court remitted the case to the Federal Court of Australia to determine whether or not he is protected by International Law. The Federal Court will also review the Local Court determination that he will receive a fair trial in Croatia. The case is next before Justice Cowdroy in November. Vasiljković has been in custody since January 2006.
On 12 April 2007, authorities in Sydney granted Croatia's extradition request, with Vasiljković being held pending appeal at Parklea Correctional Centre in its maximum security section on protection. As an alleged war criminal, he is in a cell by himself, but has been given a guitar and is allowed to have a pen and paper. He wishes to enroll on the electoral roll as he is an Australian citizen but as yet he has been unable to do so. He is also prevented from speaking to members of the press. By April 2007, the Serbian community of Australia had spent over $500,000 on Vasiljković's defence.
On 3 February 2009 Vasiljković appeal against extradition to Croatia was rejected by the Federal Court of Australia., Among those coming to the defence of Vasiljković was the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Australia and New Zealand Irinej Dobrijević.
On 2 September Federal Court of Australia ruled that "there was a substantial or real chance of prejudice if he was extradited to Croatia, ordering release, pending appeal. He subsequently walked free from Parklea prison in Sydney's west on 4 September 2009.
The Australian government appealed the ruling, which was successfully overturned. Courts ruled that Vasiljković should be extradited to Croatia. However, the Australian Federal Police subsequently lost track of him.
In March 2010 the High Court of Australia overturned the Federal Court decision allowing the Australian Federal Government to extradite Vasiljković to Croatia for war crimes. After the ruling ordering his extraction, Vasiljković was nowhere to be found.
Final arrest and appeals
Vasiljković was caught again by the Australian Federal Police at the Harwood slipyard on the Clarence River on 12 May 2010, having evaded police for 43 days. Vasiljković had bought a yacht in which he had been living in and repairing with the intent to flee the country. Intelligence received by the Netherlands police stated that Vasiljkovic sent his former lawyer Brad Slowgrove to the country to plead that his case be moved to the International Criminal Tribunal. Slowgrove, had been disbarred from practicing law due to threatening NSW magistrate Allan Moore, who was hearing the Vasiljkovic extradition in 2006, with "severe personal consequences." Because of this, he was flagged once entering the Netherlands, and Dutch police were able to provide information to Australian police that Vasiljković was still hiding in Australia. Vasiljković's location was tracked after he made a call to Franko Simatović at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
On 19 May, the Australian Court rejected Vasiljković's defence that Croatian courts would not give him a fair trial and that claims that Croatian courts had been more lenient towards Croats were "scanty" and "feeble". Australia's Federal Court upheld the ruling four months later, rejecting an appeal made by Vasiljković.
On 16 November 2012 the Australian Government and prime minister Julia Gillard decided to extradite Vasiljković to Croatia. The decision is the first war crimes extradition conducted by Australia. Vasiljković appealed the decision, but on 12 December 2014 the Full Federal Court rejected the appeal, clearing him for extradition to Croatia.
On 15 May 2015 the High Court of Australia refused Vasiljković leave to appeal the December 2014 Federal Court ruling because of the unlikelihood of a successful outcome for him. Following this refusal, Vasiljković had no remaining legal avenues to challenge his extradition.
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