ZAGREB, Oct 15 (Reuters) A powerful parliamentary deputy and six other people went on trial in Croatia today over the killing of Serb civilians during Croatia's 1991-95 war of independence.
Branimir Glavas, who limped into the Zagreb county court with the help of a cane, is the first senior state official to be charged with such offences, in an indication of the country's growing resolove to confront its recent past.
Croatia has already convicted several soldiers and an army general for war crimes against Serbs, but the efficiency of its judiciary and its ability to conduct war crimes trials remain under close scrutiny of the European Union, which Zagreb hopes to join in the next few years.
A county court in Osijek, a city in eastern Croatia where Glavas commanded defence forces in the war, indicted him in March for on allegedly giving orders to members of a unit under his command to abduct, torture and murder Serbs in late 1991.
The prisoners were taken to the banks of the Drava river, with their mouths sealed with guffer tape, shot and dumped into the water, the indictment said.
Glavas was also investigated in the capital Zagreb for a separate atrocity against Serb civilians, also committed in Osijek in the early 1990s. Both investigations were then united in a single indictment.
Glavas, who denies any wrongdoing, staged a 40-day hunger strike to protest against his detention last year and was freed in December after his health seriously worsened.
Dressed in a dark suit and appearing calm, he pleaded not guilty to his indictment. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Glavas was among the founders of the ruling conservative HDZ party but was expelled last year after clashing with Prime Minister Ivo Sanader over Sanader's pro-European policies.
His new party rules the fertile Slavonia region in the east. He has denounced his trial as a political ploy and Sanader's attempt to take revenge.
Croatia is negotiating EU membership and is also set to become a NATO member in 2009. Handling of local war crimes is seen as an important test in its drive to join both blocs.
Croatia fought an independence war from 1991 to 1995 against the Yugoslav army and rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade. During the period of nationalist rule in the 1990s, most crimes against Serbs were tacitly condoned and rarely investigated.
REUTERS SKB PM1755