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

Blaskic Sentence Slashed

Bosnian Croat general to be released after eight years in Hague detention.
By Rachel S.

In a dramatic two-hour hearing, an appeals chamber on July 29 announced it had reversed most of the counts on which Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaskic was previously convicted and cut his sentence from 45 years to nine.

Hours later, in another surprise move, the tribunal president, Theodor Meron, granted Blaskic early release from the United Nations Detention Unit, which means he will be allowed home as early as August 2.

Cheers erupted in court when the ruling of the five-judge appeals chamber was announced. Eyes turned to Blaskic’s wife, Ratka, who had appeared to faint when the original 45-year sentence was read out in March 2000.

This time, her anxiety - and then joy - was visible in the public gallery; a tribunal guard offered her a cup of water to help calm her nerves.

Blaskic, separated from his family and friends by a glass panel, seemed one of the few people present to remain calm and expressionless throughout the proceedings.

The lengthy and far-reaching judgment, which ran to 297 pages, contained stinging rebukes to the trial chamber that issued the original decision.

Over and over again, presiding Judge Fausto Pocar, reading out a summary of the ruling, said no reasonable trier of fact could have reached the conclusions drawn by the previous judges; over and over again, he said the earlier decisions would be overturned.

Blaskic, former commander of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in central Bosnia, was indicted in 1995. The following year, he voluntarily surrendered to the tribunal and pleaded not guilty to all crimes for which he was charged.

His trial, which focused on claims that Blaskic was responsible for crimes committed in the Lasva valley in the mid-Nineties, began in 1997.

In 2000, the trial chamber convicted him of 19 counts of grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva conventions, violations of the laws or customs of war and crimes against humanity committed between May 1992 and January 1994.

Among other things, they found him guilty of overseeing the troops that attacked the village of Ahmici in the municipality of Vitez in 1993, killing more than 100 Bosniak, or Muslim, civilians.

At the time, the presiding judge, Claude Jorda, admonished Blaskic directly. “The crimes you committed, General Blaskic, are extremely serious,” he said. “The acts of war carried out with disregard for international humanitarian law and in hatred of other people, the villages reduced to rubble, the houses and stables set on fire and destroyed, the people forced to abandon their homes, the lost and broken lives, are unacceptable.”

Jorda and his colleagues, judges Almiro Rodrigues and Mohamed Shahabuddeen, then handed down the longest sentence yet issued by the tribunal.

Blaskic appealed soon after, arguing the judges had misinterpreted relevant law, had made erroneous factual findings and had issued an improper sentence. He said he had been denied his due process rights because the indictment against him was too vague and because the prosecution had failed to disclose a number of exculpatory exhibits.

Importantly, the second time around, Blaskic had a large amount of new evidence at his disposal.

According to the appeals chamber, this evidence had been kept from the parties because of a “lack of cooperation on the part of Republic of Croatia” at the time of the trial and as a result of “the delay in the opening of the Republic of Croatia’s archives, which only occurred following the death of former president Franjo Tudjman”.

Much of this new information, which Blaskic’s defense team did have access to in the original trial, showed Blaskic had not been personally responsible for the atrocities.

There was so much additional information available that the appeals chamber established a two-part test to review the trial chamber’s findings.

Using this standard, it first analysed the evidence provided during the trial to determine whether it believed beyond reasonable doubt that Blaskic was guilty of the specific charge. If the answer was no, the review would halt and he would be found not-guilty.

If the answer was yes, it would move on to the second step - to look at the trial evidence and the new evidence together under the correct legal standard, and determine whether it still believed beyond all reasonable doubt that Blaskic was guilty of the specific charge.

Using this new standard of review, the appeals chamber quickly overturned most of the trial chamber’s findings.

In particular, it dismissed the trial chamber’s conviction of Blaskic for the crimes committed in Ahmici and in neighboring villages on April 16, 1993.

The appeals chamber decided the trial chamber relied on “wholly erroneous” evidence, that its findings were “tenuous” and that the new evidence admitted on appeal “fatally undermines” the previous conclusions.

The appeals chamber then swiftly reversed his conviction on these counts.

The judges went on to similarly consider - and overturn - Blaskic’s conviction for crimes committed in other parts of the Vitez municipality, as well as in Loncari, Ocehnici, and Kiseljak.

The appeals chamber agreed with the trial chamber in a few instances. It found Blaskic guilty of using detainees to dig trenches, of failing to punish or report subordinates who unlawfully detained Muslim civilians in the Vitez cultural centre and the Vitez veterinary hospital and of using detainees as human shields. It dismissed Blaskic’s appeal on due process grounds.

After reaching these new legal and factual findings, the appeals chamber took it upon itself to impose a new sentence, rather than simply modify the trial chamber’s decision.

In determining the sentence, it considered two aggravating circumstances - that Blaskic held a high position at the time the crimes were committed, and that many of his victims were civilians.

The judges listed seven mitigating circumstances, including Blaskic’s voluntarily surrender to the tribunal, his expression of real and sincere remorse, his character, his good behaviour at the trial and in detention, his small children and poor health, his particular circumstances in the war and the fact that he had been detained for more than eight years already.

This last point had significant practical implications. When the judges announced Blaskic would be sentenced to nine years in prison, with credit due for time served, it became clear he had already spent most of his sentence in the United Nations Detention Unit. Prisoners are typically allowed to apply for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

Almost immediately after the sentence was read, Blaskic’s lawyers filed a request for his release, which Judge Meron granted.

Judge Meron said he based his decision on the fact that Blaskic had already served 90 per cent of his sentence, had been an exemplary prisoner and appellant, and was in urgent need of medical care.

Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.