Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Blaskic Papers Probe

Croatian inquiry into alleged concealment of Blaskic documents may lead to public recognition of darker side of state policy.
By Berislav Jelinic

Just days after the former Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaskic returned from the Hague on August 2, Croatian state prosecutor launched an investigation into the apparent concealment of exculpatory documents on the basis of which Blaskic's sentence was slashed this July from 45 to 9 years, in the most dramatic sentencing verdict the tribunal's appeal chamber ever delivered.


The investigation, which enjoys public support of Croatia's president Stipe Mesic, is expected to probe the top-most echelons of the wartime Zagreb government.


Observers believe that - if done thoroughly - the investigation could lead to a public recognition of the darker side of Croatian state policy towards neighbouring Bosnia during the years of war there. Such recognition, they say, could also help move the country forward on its way towards European integration.


"It is of utmost importance for the Croatian state to closely investigate and process this case," state prosecutor Mladen Bajic agreed in an interview with IWPR, saying his office was already "taking serious measures aimed at precisely reconstructing the whole case".


The sudden turnaround in the Blaskic case was brought about mainly by the fact that - following the death of Croatia's wartime leader Franjo Tudjamn and the change of government in 2000 - his defence team was given access to many documents that had seemingly been hidden from them earlier. The documents were made public after the new president Stipe Mesic opened his predecessor's archives to look into some of his more controversial policies in the Nineties.


Once presented in The Hague, the documents were accepted as a proof of Blaskic's innocence for some of the crimes that he was accused of – including the most infamous episode of the Croat-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, the massacre of hundreds of civilian inhabitants of the Muslim village of Ahmici in 1993.


The documents suggested the existence of a parallel chain of command bypassing Blaskic and stretching from the Zagreb government to the Bosnian Croat political leaders and the commanders of the local military police.


Blaskic was still found guilty of using detainees to dig trenches and to act as human shields; and of failing to punish or report subordinates who unlawfully detained Muslim civilians.


But the contents of the documents found in Tudjman's archive and shown in the tribunal's courtrooms had also strongly suggested that they were deliberately concealed by the late president himself or by his closest advisors, in order to cover up the policy of ethnic cleansing pursued in the part of Bosnia under control of ethnic Croats.


The documents shown in The Hague suggest that Tudjman's and his political party, the HDZ, knew in the Nineties who were the real perpetrators of the Ahmici massacre.


A Croatian intelligence service report from February 1994, addressed to Tudjman and signed and stamped by his son Miroslav, the then-head of state intelligence, states that other people - the commanders of the special unit Jokery and the regional military police - were responsible for the massacre.


Other documents leaked in the meantime to the Croatian press suggested that the Zagreb authorities told the people they suspected of perpetrating the Ahmici massacre to come to Croatia where their identities were changed to protect them from justice.


The documents suggested that under the direct orders of Franjo Tudjman, his son Miroslav and wife of defense minister Gojko Susak, Djurdja, "created" new identities for them, including false birth certificates, identity papers and passports.


The investigation into these events has been launched more than five years after the documents were allegedly concealed, falling just outside the five-year statute of limitation for prosecuting such offences. But Croatian law allows, under certain circumstances, prosecution for similar offences for up to 10 years after they were committed, and these provisions were apparently now applied.


Apart from Miroslav Tudjman and Djurdja Susak, the investigation could focus also on a whole range of other former senior HDZ and state functionaries.


Not long after the Hague tribunal's appeals chamber delivered its spectacular verdict, Blaskic's lawyer Anto Nobilo pointed a finger at former chief of the military’s secret service and Franjo Tudjman's national security advisor Markica Rebic, accusing him of concealing the documents.


Mladen Bajic told IWPR that his office would "definitely speak with the two of them in the course of the investigation, but also with others who could have some information on the case".


Observers hope that if properly conducted, the investigation could help move Croatia forward in applying European standards of political transparency.


"One of the fundamental civil rights in every democratic state is access to all documents that do not threaten the state's security, and the case of the disappearance and concealment of documents of vital importance for Blaskic's defence is a notorious example of abuse of official position by those who had access to these documents but made them inaccessible," president of Transparency International Croatia Zorislav Antun Petrovic told IWPR, adding he hoped Croatia would profit form it by "ensuring its people's right to access to information".


"If people responsible for all this are identified and made to bear the consequences, it will set new rules of conduct in the Croatian state administration and in society in general," he added.


Berislav Jelinic is a reporter for the Zagreb-based Nacional weekly.


Ana Uzelac IWPR project manager in The Hague contributed to this report.