Blaskic Trial

Tribunal Update 38: Last Week in The Hague (July 21-26, 1997)

Blaskic Trial

Tribunal Update 38: Last Week in The Hague (July 21-26, 1997)

Saturday, 26 July, 1997

The defence counsels took different roles. Zagreb lawyer Anto Nobilo covered the period from the seventh century to 1991. His American colleague Russell Hayman focused on events thereafter, particularly the war in central Bosnia, during which the forces under the command of General Blaskic had committed the crimes for which he is being held responsible.

The defence counsels had ample time to prepare, since Robert Donia had testified as the Prosecution's expert-witness on 24 and 25 June (see UPDATE 35). The cross-examination had been postponed because his name was misspelt (Dornia, instead of Donia) on the list of witnesses submitted to the defence on 24 and 25 June, who claimed it had not managed to establish who he was and to prepare for him. Presiding Judge Claude Jorda accepted this.

In his cross-examination, Nobilo had several goals in mind. His first goal was to defend the reputation of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, a frquent strategy for defence lawyers of the same ethnic group as the accused. The recurrent motto seems to be:

"Forget the accused, defend the President!", be he Tudjman, Slobodan Milosevic or Alija Izetbegovic.

In his testimony, Donia claimed that Tudjman, the annexation of Bosnia on both historical and political grounds. Defence counsel Nobilo did not manage to undermine the assessments of Donia, a specialist in the history of Bosnian Muslims. Donia persistently adhered to his conclusions that Tudjman considered Bosnian Muslims to be a part of the Croatian ethnic corpus, and their territory a part of Croatia's historical area. However Nobilo did succeed in getting him to concede that others besides Tudjman had planned the division of Bosnia, including even the Bosnian President Izetbegovic.

Nobilo was much more successful in achieving his second goal: to make Donia testify that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is "the most responsible for the disintegration of Yugoslavia.", a frequent and easily obtained admission. Confirming the

defence's "discovery" of Milosevic's " responsibility", Donia also cited the erosion of the central institutions (to which, apart from Milosevic, both the Croatian and Slovenian politicians contributed) which transformed the Yugoslav People's Army from an all- Yugoslav into a Serbian army, as the factors in the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

On several occasions Nobilo also tried to make the witness testify to Serbian domination of pre-1991 Yugoslavia, an idea which Donia repeatedly rejected. According to Donia, communism was the dominant force amongst all ethnic groupings. Donia also rejected Nobilo's suggestion that the country had been undemocratic, arguing that it was gradually decentralised and democratised with a far higher level of human rights than any other East European state.

The main thrust of Russell Hayman's cross-examination was to dispute Donia's argument that the break-out of the Croat-Muslim war in central Bosnia resulted from an attempt at forceful implementation of the Vance-Owen plan. Drawn up at the beginning of 1993, this plan divided Bosnia into 10 nationally defined cantons. Bosnian Croats were delighted by the plan which increased their territory, while Bosnian Serbs rejected it coolly. The Bosnian president, as was the case on a number of similar occasions, was undecided.

According to Donia, the Croat Council of Defence(HVO), issued an ultimatum to put pressure on Izetbegovic. They demanded that the Muslim military forces, i.e. those of the BH government, withdraw within the borders of cantons assigned to them in the three days' period, and that the joint command of the forces of HVO and the BH Army be established until April 15. If not, it was threatened, HVO would implement the Vance-Owen Plan itself.

This part of Donia's testimony is extremely relevant to the Blaskic case. A day after the deadline expired, on 16 April 1993, the forces under his command carried out a co-ordinated attack on a dozen villages in the Lasva Valley (belonging to the Croatian canton of the Vance-Owen Plan). It was then that the grave crimes against Muslim civilians, of which is the General is accused, took place.

The defence case was that there was no ultimatum, but an agreement signed by President of Bosnia-Herzegovina Izetbegovic and the then President of HVO and the so-called Herzeg-Bosnia, Mate Boban in Mostar on April 3. They found this agreement in amongst the prosecution papers.

Argument over the nature of the ultimatum or agreement continued for two days before the prosecution produced their trump card. This was a letter from Izetbegovic to Presiding Judge Jorda stating that he had neither signed nor seen the document and that he was not in Mostar on the day the defence claims the agreement was signed.

The defence immediately objected to the proposal that the letter be accepted as material evidence. Hayman protested that, "This is a court of witnesses and not witnesses mailing their testimony . . . we have the right to cross-examination." Presiding Judge Jorda in turn expressed surprise that letters addressed to him should arrive via the Prosecutor's office. He added that first they should establish the letter was genuine and then whether Izetbegovic was willing to testify. He concluded that the Chamber would not admit the letter for the time being.

Even though Donia, when re-examined by the prosecution, continued to argue that it really was an ultimatum, both sides are certain to return to this question.

Simon Leach, who investigated crimes in the Lasva Valley, testified after Robert Donia. The purpose of his testimony was to familiarise the judges with the site of crime, especially with the towns and the villages in this area and the distances between them. The issue of distance is particularly important since the prosecutor claims that the most serious crimes occurred within 300 meters to 5-6 kilometres of Blaskic's headquarters in Konjic and Kiseljak, demolishing his defence that he was not informed of them.

The judges were also shown photographs and video recordings of burnt and destroyed villages through which the HVO forces passed in April 1993, as well as several aeroplane and satellite pictures of this region, obtained from the British Ministry of Defence.

The defence counsels disputed Leach's assessments of certain distances and time needed to travel from one place to another, as well as what the accused was able see from his headquarters in Konjic, passing most of the ruined villages. According to the defence, the Muslim forces controlled part of the road running through the Lasva Valley. Blaskic used UNPROFOR transporters to travel between headquarters and would not have been able to see.

Under cross-examination Leach's admitted that his investigators has not discovered orders from Blaskic commanding troops to destroy civilian targets. Meanwhile the prosecution do have documents signed by Blaskic ordering troops not to attack civilian targets.

Donia's statement casts interesting light on this. He said that in the cease-fire following the attack on the Lasva Valley, Mate Boban agreed that all those responsible for the violation of international humanitarian law would be investigated and punished. Donia however saw no evidence that any HVO member was held accountable or tried for such violations.

The first eye witness testimony began on July 25. Sefkija Djidic, former commander of the Muslim forces in Stari Vitez, now the chief of the police station in the Muslim part of this still divided town, spoke about "the good old days" before the war, when the Muslims, Croats and Serbs lived happily together.

He described the fight for power, the rise of the nationalists and the deterioration of relations between the ethnic groups in the Lasva valley. His testimony continues on July 28.

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