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The beginning on Tuesday of the retrial at Belgrade Higher Court in the case against Gojko Lukic, Dusko Vasiljevic, Jovan Lipovac and Dragana Djekic, who are accused of involvement in the abduction and execution of 20 non-Serbs during the Bosnian war, was postponed until April.
The four wartime Serb fighters are being retried for their alleged role in the crime against 20 passengers who were seized from a train at Strpci station in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993.
Lukic’s lawyer told the court his client was not able to appear for health reasons.
This mirrored the situation in January 2019, when the original trial was due to start but was postponed for two months. The Strpci case has been dogged by delays since the defendants were indicted in 2018.
The captives, mainly Bosniaks, were seized from the train at Strpci and taken to a school in Prelovo, where they were physically assaulted.
They were then taken to a burned-out house in the village of Musici, where they were executed.
The four defendants were convicted of participating in beating the captives in Prelovo and taking them to the house in Musici.
The indictment, confirmed in 2018, said that Lukic, Vasiljevic and Djekic were members of the Avengers, a Serb paramilitary unit led by Milan Lukic, Gojko Lukic’s brother. Lipovac, the other defendant in the trial, was a Bosnian Serb Army soldier at the time of the crime.
Dusko Vasiljevic’s brother Ljubisa was initially indicted alongside the other defendants but died in July 2021.
The defendants were eventually convicted after around four years on trial, a process that suffered delays because of arguments about the mental health and ability to testify of Mitrasin Glisic, a key prosecution witness whose testimony incriminated the four wartime fighters.
In February 2023, Belgrade Higher Court sentenced the defendants to a total of 35 years in prison.
But in October 2023, the Belgrade Court of Appeals quashed the first-instance verdict, saying it was “based on a significant violation of the provisions of the criminal procedure, because the first-instance court failed to decide on the evidentiary proposals of the defence regarding the questioning of Milan Lukic, who commanded the Avengers unit… as well as on two others witnesses”.
Serbia has been repeatedly criticised for its slow progress in prosecuting war crime cases. The European Commission’s latest report on Serbia’s progress towards EU accession said the country’s “pace of processing war crimes has significantly deteriorated in recent years”.
Milan Lukic is currently in prison in Estonia after the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia sentenced him to life imprisonment for other crimes during the Bosnian war, but not for the Strpci killings.
He was indicted for Strpci by the Bosnian state prosecution in 2019. The elementary school in Prelovo where the victims were robbed and beaten was the same one that Lukic himself attended as a child.
A BIRN analysis showed that, during the Belgrade trial, many of the defence witnesses tried to portray Lukic as being solely responsible for the Strpci crime.
Ten other wartime Bosnian Serb soldiers have already been convicted in Bosnia and in Montenegro of involvement in the crime.
The appeals chamber of the Bosnian state court in October 2023 confirmed the verdict that sentenced the former commander of the Interventions Company of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Visegrad Brigade, Boban Indjic, to 15 years in prison.
In October 2022, the Bosnian state court also found seven former soldiers from the Bosnian Serb Army’s Second Podrinje Brigade guilty of involvement in the abductions and murders. The judge in the trial said that Milan Lukic took part in the execution of 18 of the captured civilians.
A paramilitary volunteer from Serbia, Mico Jovicic, was sentenced to five years in prison by the Bosnian state court after making a plea bargain admitting his guilt in 2016.
Another paramilitary volunteer, Nebojsa Ranisavljevic, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the Strpci crime by the Montenegrin court.