Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Although the Blaskic trial lasted only three and a half days last week (the courtroom and the judges were occupied with other cases), no fewer than eight witnesses testified.
The reason for this new efficiency is the judges’ directive that the prosecution announce at the beginning of every testimony what each witness will speak about, and also cite the counts of the indictment to which that testimony refers.
Both in direct and cross-examination, the judges (presiding Judge Claude Jorda, and judges Fouad Riad and Mohammed Shahabuddeen) have been very careful not to have questions repeated, or to interrupt either the prosecution or the defence when they have assessed that questions are irrelevant for the case under examination.
Blaskic is accused of crimes committed by the Bosnian Croat forces (HVO) under his command in the Lasva valley in central Bosnia in 1993, the gravest of which is the massacre of more than 100 Muslim civilians in the village of Ahmici.
Last week the prosecution finally moved away from the crimes at Ahmici, which have dominated the trial for the past two months, to hear evidence of similar crimes committed in April 1993 in other villages and hamlets of the Lasva Valley, namely Gacice, Nadioci, Donja Veceriska, Loncari and Ocehnici.
These crimes are described in the indictment as unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian objects; wilful killing and causing serious injury; destruction and plunder of property; inhumane treatment, the taking of hostages and the use of human shields.
According to witnesses, events followed a similar pattern to those at Ahmici. Several days before the attack on April 16, 1993, there was a noticeable build-up of Croat troops and weapons. Croat civilians (women, children and elderly men) were then seen to abandon their villages. A day or two later the shelling began, Muslim houses were destroyed and burnt, men of military age were killed and other inhabitants taken to camps, prisons or detention centres. Those men judged able to work were taken to the front lines to dig trenches. Others were kept for prisoner exchange.
Witness Avdija Hrustic, a Muslim woman from the village of Gacice, described how detained civilians were used as human shields. On April 16, 1993, she said, 247 villagers were made to sit for several hours in front of Hotel Vitez (the site of Blaksic’s HVO headquarters) to prevent Muslim forces from shelling the building. Although there was a huge crater in front of the hotel, and a number of windows had been shattered, there was no new shelling while the human shield was in place. When asked by the defence on what basis she concluded that she had been part of a human shield, Hrustic replied "From all our experience."
The defence does not dispute that all this occurred. Nor does it question the fact that villages were attacked, houses burnt, men killed and inhabitants taken away. Its aim is to present these events as the result of the fighting between two sides, a response to Muslim provocation, and as a legitimate military operation. In some cases, events are also being presented as the consequence of chaotic actions by uncontrolled individuals or paramilitary formations.
Under such circumstances, the questions addressed to the witnesses by the judges themselves after the prosecution and defence examination were often very significant. A number of witnesses last week were asked by Judge Riad whether the Muslim side had done anything to provoke the HVO attack. All of them answered that there had been no provocation or resistance.
They furthermore claimed that their Croat neighbours had warned them that any resistance would be futile as regular units of the Croatian Army (HV) were allegedly due to take part in the operation alongside local HVO forces. "There was no provocation... We just wanted to live together where we were... We didn't mind Croatian flags on the houses and Croatian language in the schools", Hrustic told Judge Riad. "We had excellent neigbourly relations till that day", witness "R" from the village of Donja Veceriska said in response to the same question. "We did not believe that something like that might happen, since already everything was under the control of HVO", said Ibrahim Nuhagic from the village of Ocehnici.
Two members of the British Battalion of UNPROFOR, which was stationed in Vitez, testified to the character of the military operation. Colour Sergeant Ian Parrot described the conduct of HVO soldiers as "well organised... they used the tactics of a military unit... rather than just a group of people carrying out a hasty plan...".
Major Roy Hunter described his meeting with three Croat political leaders in Vitez - Anto Valenta, Ivan Santic and Pero Skopljak. After they had given him their business cards, which Hunter presented to the court, they explained to him over coffee and slivovica (plum brandy) that Croats could not live together with Muslims, and that it would be better if they were to be divided into ethnically clean regions. Then they said that UN forces should disarm Bosnian army forces in Stari Vitez (the Muslim part of the city under siege from the HVO), and that Muslims would be granted safe passage. If that did not happen then force would be used.
At the end of the conversation they announced that HVO Commander Tihomir Blaskic would send a written directive on how this should be carried out to the UN command in Vitez. Writing in his diary, Hunter described that proposal as a "fascist policy". Santic and Skopljak are also accused of crimes in the Lasva Valley and are awaiting trial in The Hague.
Judge Shahabuddeen was interested to know whether the HV acted independently or in coordination with the HVO, and in the role that General Blaskic had played in it. According to Hunter, the HV and the HVO acted as a unified group in that operation with a common goal. They were under a single command and there was close political and military cooperation. When asked directly by the judge whether Tihomir Blaskic would have been the military officer charged with command responsibility by senior political leaders, Hunter replied "yes".
The short exchange between Hunter and defence counsel Russell Hayman was also interesting. Hunter agreed with Hayman that four Muslim houses in the village of Donja Bila were of great military significance to the Croat forces. When the defence counsel asked whether he would have ordered the seizure of those houses in order to strengthen the position of his forces. Hunter replied "Yes, but I would not order the killing of an old man”.
Witness "Q" from the village of Loncari described meeting Miroslav Bralo, called Cicko, deputy commander of the special HVO unit "Jokers". Together with her 11-month-old son and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, “Q” was among 200 Muslims who sought shelter in the rooms of Maktabe - the religious-humanitarian Muslim organisation - after the HVO attack on Loncari.
"Q" said, "A soldier came who was terrible... I know him as Cicko, Miroslav Bralo... He had a long coat, he started cursing, "you belong in Turkey"... We were helpless and didn't dare to speak... He pulled out a big knife with blood on it, and he said he was slitting throats in Ahmici with it... We kept silent... My little daughter started to scream, saying 'cover me, he is going to kill me'... because he said if he heard any child scream he would kill the child... We were in great fear... He is still walking around Vitez and terrorising victims.…"
On that day witness "Q" saw her husband for the last time. Dressed as a woman, he tried to escape from the village. Several months later she heard from an eyewitness that her husband had been caught and killed by Cicko himself. Cicko, notorious for marching into the SFOR base in Vitez in the summer of 1997 to inquire whether his name was on the sealed indictment of those wanted by The Hague Tribunal, has also been indicted for war crimes.
Unfortunately, the SFOR soldiers missed his name on the list when he called on them.
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