CAPTURED war crimes suspect Dragan Vasiljkovic tried to avoid extradition to Croatia by sending an associate to the Netherlands to plead for his case to be moved to an international war crimes tribunal.
Vasiljkovic, also known as Daniel Snedden, was reportedly found hiding on a boat near the seaside town of Yamba, north of Coffs Harbour in NSW, on Wednesday afternoon, following a 43-day international manhunt. He spent last night at Sydney’s Silverwater jail.
Known as Captain Dragan during the Balkan wars, Vasiljkovic disappeared on the day the High Court approved his extradition to Croatia on war crimes allegations.
While federal police have remained tight-lipped about circumstances leading up to Vasiljkovic’s capture, sources close to Vasiljkovic have told The Age that his former lawyer, Brad Slowgrove, is in The Hague where he tried to have Vasiljkovic’s war crimes case moved to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal – which has tried former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and other Balkan war criminals – is winding up and has transferred many smaller cases to regional war crimes courts in former Yugoslav countries. Vasiljkovic was to be tried at one such court in Sibenik, Croatia, over allegations of torturing prisoners of war and ordering the killing of civilians, which carry a maximum 20-year jail term.
He has steadfastly denied all allegations, pointing out that he testified for the prosecution in the war crimes trial against Milosevic. He has also claimed he would not get a fair trial in Croatia because he is a Serb “national hero”, and that he might even be killed in Croatia.
Mr Slowgrove, 59, is a Sydney lawyer who was disbarred last year for attempting to intimidate a NSW magistrate hearing Vasiljkovic’s extradition case in 2006. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal labelled his conduct “disgraceful” and said his letter to magistrate Allan Moore had ”threatened severe personal consequences” if Mr Moore did not disqualify himself. Mr Slowgrove could not be contacted yesterday.
The AFP swooped on Vasiljkovic after receiving information from Dutch police. A spokesman for Dutch National Prosecutors said the AFP had contacted their office last week, saying it suspected Vasiljkovic was hiding in the Netherlands. Dutch police discovered he was not and told the AFP they believed he was still in Australia.
Sources said Vasiljkovic did not resist arrest when he was captured, with one source saying “he behaved as [if] he was expecting the agents”.
Before he went into hiding, Vasiljkovic was living at the Coffs Harbour home of friend Nada Lukich-Bruce, whose late father fought with Serb paramilitary troops under Vasiljkovic’s command in Croatia. Coffs Harbour police confirmed Ms Lukich-Bruce was overseas at the time of his arrest.
Barrister Clive Evatt, QC – who is representing Vasiljkovic in a defamation appeal after his failed lawsuit against Nationwide News, publisher of The Australian – said he rang Ms Lukich-Bruce on Monday to tell her that unless Vasiljkovic was taken into custody by July 5, the defamation case would be dismissed. The AFP arrested Vasiljkovic the next day. The Age can also reveal that a close friend of Vasiljkovic travelled to Australia from overseas to try to persuade the fugitive to talk to the AFP. The friend is believed to have been under close AFP watch and made no contact with the fugitive.
Solicitors acting for Vasiljkovic in the defamation case met him in jail yesterday. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor will now decide whether Vasiljkovic, 55, is extradited. ”In my opinion, the outcome of the defamation appeal would be an important factor for the minister to exercise his discretion. If he won the appeal, it could be grounds for keeping him here,” said Mr Evatt.
Mr O’Connor will review submissions made on behalf of Vasiljkovic against extradition.
The Croatian government will then be able to respond. The process can take months, and there is room for legal action after the minister’s determination. Vasiljkovic has no money to fund a legal challenge after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own and Serbian community money on his various cases.