Blaskic Trial

Tribunal Update 34: Last Week in The Hague (June 23-28, 1997)

Blaskic Trial

Tribunal Update 34: Last Week in The Hague (June 23-28, 1997)

Saturday, 28 June, 1997

The opposing Croatian-American defence team - Anto Nobilo from Zagreb and Russel Hayman from Los Angeles - had made similarly confident statements just before the trial that it would prove Blaskic's innocence. But the defence has decided to make its opening remarks after the prosecution rests its case.

For his part, Claude Jorda of France, as presiding judge of Trial Chamber I, consisting of Judges Fouad Riad from Egypt and Mohammed Shahabuddeen from Guyana, said that “all of us here. . . wish to ensure that General Blaskic enjoys an impartial and fair trial. . . in a reasonable time frame".

The judges, warned Jorda, “will not hesitate to intervene to prevent repetition and irrelevant submissions from spinning out the trial.” Jorda did not say so, but it sounded as if he was threatening, or promising, that the judges of Trial Chamber I would not allow what is happening in Trial Chamber II with the Celebici trial to happen to them.

In his opening statement, trial prosecutor Harmon described in general terms the events cited in the indictment, in which the armed forces of the Bosnian Croats, under Blaskic's command and control, “ethnically cleansed” a part of Central Bosnia. They did this by employing methods which, said Harmon, “no responsible military commander would condone”: systematically destroying Muslim villages; systematically burning Muslim houses; systematically stealing Muslim property; systematically imprisoning Muslim men and using them to dig trenches on the front line; systematically expelling Muslims and, in some cases described in the indictment, systematically killing Muslim civilians.

The prosecution, said Harmon, would present proof that Blaskic had “planned, ordered, or otherwise aided and abetted” the crimes described in the indictment, and also that he knew about those crimes.

As an example, Harmon said that many of these crimes “happened within minutes of Blaskic's headquarters”; the village of Ahmici, which on April 16, 1993 was razed to the ground and its inhabitants massacred, was only 5 kilometres from Blaskic's headquarters in Vitez; while the explosion of a truck-bomb arranged by Croat soldiers on April 18 of the same year in Stari Vitez (16 people killed, more than 30 injured and enormous destruction) took place less than 400 metres from Blaskic's HQ.

Blaskic's knowledge of these and other crimes, said Harmon, would be confirmed by many impartial witnesses: British and Dutch members of the UN Protection Force, members of the European Community Monitoring Mission, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organisations.

Some of them protested to Blaskic in person over the massacre in Ahmici, the truck bomb in Stari Vitez and the shelling of Zenica market, but Blaskic's reply, according to Harmon, was always the same: “The Serbs did it!” As a professional officer, trained at the Military Academy of the former Yugoslav People's Army, Blaskic was “fully aware of his obligations under international humanitarian law. . . but he ignored them, or was indifferent to them, in his determination to achieve Croat domination in Central Bosnia,” Harmon concluded.

The process of proving the allegations in the indictment began with the testimony of the US historian Robert Doni. In two days of testimony about recent and not so recent Balkan history, the remarks most relevant to the case were:

* National movements in Bosnia in the 19th century were externally led: from Serbia and Croatia. Both Serb and Croat nationalists tended to present Bosnian Muslims as “theirs”, as Serbs or Croats of Islamic faith. * These tendencies revived at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, when Serb and Croat nationalists “counted” the Muslims as belonging to their ethnic stock, trying to prove thereby that Bosnia was mainly Serb, or mainly Croat. * In the case of Croatia, such annexationist tendencies became the official policy of the ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose leader Franjo Tudjman - a historian - had tried to prove the historical basis of Croat claims to Bosnia in his writings. * * Extracts from Tudjman's book Nationalism in Contemporary Europe (first published in 1991) were read out in court. In these extracts, the historian and future President of Croatia wrote of the historical links between Bosnia and Croatia, and the Croat ethnic origin of the majority of Bosnian Muslims. The parts of Bosnia that Tudjman considers to be Croatian include - and the prosecutor laid particular stress on this - Vitez, Busovaca and the other settlements in the Lasva valley. These are the places whose ethnic cleansing is attributed to Gen. Blaskic. * The key moment for Croatian policy in Bosnia , according to Doni was in November 1991, with the Zagreb-inspired coup in the leadership of the Bosnian branch of the HDZ. On Tudjman's orders, the party leader Stjepan Kljujic, described by Doni as a “moderate Croat nationalist” and “supporter of a multi-ethnic Bosnia” was replaced by Tudjman's henchman Mate Boban, “an extreme Croat nationalist.” After that, the HDZ - hitherto the party of all Croats in Bosnia - became the party of the territorial entity known as Herceg-Bosna, which represented the “extension of the Republic of Croatia on Bosnian territory.” The armed forces of that entity - the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) - became the highest military and civilian authority, and on territory under its control it established a “military-totalitarian order.” The defendant, Blaskic, was commander of the HVO in the operational zone of Central Bosnia. * The next key moment for Croatian policy in Bosnia was the announcement of the Vance-Owen plan in March 1993. Under this plan, Bosnia was divided into ten cantons, of which three were assigned to the Bosnian Croats. Satisfied with that share, the Bosnian HDZ leader Mate Boban immediately accepted the Vance-Owen plan. The Bosnian Serbs rejected the plan, while the government in Sarajevo hestitated. On April 3, the HVO sent an ultimatum to Sarajevo, demanding the withdrawal of Bosnian government forces to the borders of the cantons which had a Muslim majority. They also demanded that a joint command be established between the HVO and the Bosnian Army. Otherwise, the HVO said, it would implement the Vance-Owen plan by itself. The day after the ultimatum expired, on April 16, the HVO began a coordinated attack on Ahmici and other Muslim villages in the Lasva valley. Blaskic commanded the HVO forces in that area. ergo, the accused was acting as the conscious implementor of a military-political project whose aim was to “cleanse” the Lasva valley of Muslims and establish Croatian domination over that part of Bosnia.

After Doni (who will not be cross-examined by the defence until July 21, as the defence could not prepare itself because his name had been wrongly spelled in the list of witnesses), the prosecutor called on Simon Leach to give evidence.

Leach is the leader of the investigation team that worked on the Blaskic case. With maps, video footage and photographs, Leach portrayed to the judges the scene of the crime, the Lasva valley. His evidence will continue on Monday, June 30.

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