CANBERRA (Reuters) - A former Serb commander accused of Balkan conflict war crimes can appeal against his extradition to Croatia, an Australian court ruled on Wednesday.
Dragan Vasiljkovic, 54, who lives in Australia and also has Serbian citizenship, was arrested in January 2006 and has been in jail pending an extradition request launched by Croatia.
He lost a 2007 appeal against extradition, confirmed in February, but a Federal Court in Sydney ruled on Tuesday there was “a substantial or real chance of prejudice” if he was extradited to Croatia, ordering his release pending appeal.
Vasiljkovic had substantial grounds for believing he could be punished or imprisoned because of his nationality or political opinions, the judges found.
“No matter how serious the allegations may be that are made by a country seeking extradition, every person whose extradition is sought is entitled to a careful application of the law to the facts,” they said, according to the Australian Associated Press.
But the court stayed its release order until Friday to enable Croatia to decide on an appeal to Australia’s High Court.
Croatia holds Vasiljkovic responsible for torturing and killing Croat soldiers and civilians, as well as killing a foreign journalist, when he commanded a Serb paramilitary unit during Croatia’s 1991-95 war of independence.
Vasiljkovic, also known as Daniel Snedden, moved to Australia as a 12-year-old, but returned to Serbia in 1991 and allegedly ordered troops in the self-proclaimed republic of Srpska Krajina to fire on civilians in the town of Glina.
He was teaching golf at a Serbian club in Perth when the accusations against him were made. Vasiljkovic has dismissed charges against him as malicious and said his alleged war record was “myth and rumour.”
His lawyer said in February that he had never been indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
If Vasiljkovic loses his appeals against extradition, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor would make the final decision on whether to send him to Croatia to face trial.
Government lawyers were looking at the court judgement and possible appeal avenues, a spokesman for O’Connor said.
Croatia declared independence from communist Yugoslavia in 1991, but its Serb minority, backed by Belgrade, rebelled and seized a third of the country by force. Croatia crushed the rebellion in two offensives in 1995.
Editing by Robert Birsel