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

Blaskic Trial: Closing Arguments

Tribunal Update 136: Last Week in The Hague (26-31 July, 1999)
By IWPR

This is what one of Croat General Tihomir Blaskic's, Zagreb lawyers, Anto Nobilo, stated last week without blinking, whilst persuading


the judges that the prosecution failed to prove the international character of the Croat-Muslim conflict in 1993. Nobilo attempted to eliminate five out of a total 20 counts which charge General Blaskic with grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.


The character of the conflict in Central Bosnia was one of the topics that dominated the closing arguments by the prosecution and the defence during the 25 month-long trial. At the beginning of his closing argument, Prosecutor Gregory Kehoe only briefly mentioned the accused. He said only that as the commander of HVO in the Operative Zone Central Bosnia, the accused "was a tool for implementation of political goals."


Kehoe then spoke at length about those goals, and, in particular, about the politician who, he said formulated them: Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. At times it was as if Tudjman and not General Blaskic, was on trial.


Kehoe defined the political goals which, he said, were to be implemented by Blaskic in the following way: to create an ethnically clean area for Bosnian Croats; to remove Muslims from that area; and, finally, to unite the territory of the so-called Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia (HZ-HB) with the Republic of Croatia. These goals, Kehoe specified, were not only implemented in Central Bosnia, where the accused was active, but in all of the so-called HZ-HB, as part of efforts to root out an entire ethnic group, or to force it to abandon the territory which had been declared "Croatian".


The crimes committed in the Lasva River Valley in April 1993, of which Blaskic stands accused, did not, Kehoe stressed, take place "spontaneously". They rather represented a logical outcome of a development. The starting point of that development, the Prosecutor said, were the "political aspirations of the Republic of Croatia as articulated by Franjo Tudjman." The President's ambitions as regards the parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not arise in 1993 or 1991, Kehoe argued, but at least 10 years earlier.


The prosecutor quoted heavily from a book Tudjman the historian published back in 1981, which, Kehoe suggested, sought to provide "scholarly" proof that large parts of Croatia had become part of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of Turkish conquests. Tudjman had written that Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were "historically linked and together comprise indivisible geographic and economic entity."


In the same context, Kehoe quoted a part of the book which was dedicated to Croatian Banovina established on the eve of World War Two [when large areas of Bosnia were placed under the administrative control of Zagreb] whose revival, Kehoe said in reference to witnesses' statements, became "Tudjman's obsession." It is interesting, that a well-informed witness: the first president of the HDZ Bosnia-Herzegovina [the local branch of the ruling party in Croatia], Stjepan Kljujic, spoke about that "obsession" on the same day in the Kordic and Cerkez trial [see following story].


According to Kehoe, Tudjman worked on realisation of his territorial ambitions in collusion with his colleague, the then President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. Their now-famous secret meeting at the Karadjordjevo lodge in March 1991, focused upon carving up Bosnia-Herzegovina, argued Kehoe, with a possibility of leaving just "a small Muslim reservation around Sarajevo."


For their part, Blaskic's Defence claims there is "not a single proof about the contents and the decisions of this meeting". According to Nobilo, the fact that a real war broke out in Croatia only several months after that meeting, leads one to conclude that Milosevic and Tudjman "had not agreed about anything."


In his attempt to prove that Tudjman did not abandon these ambitions even in 1995, the Prosecutor recalled the testimony given by the then leader of Britain's Liberal Democrat Party, Paddy Ashdown, who told the judges in March last year about an "extraordinary conversation" held in May 1995, in which the Croatian President "projected his plan of Bosnia's division in a clear manner" to him.


Then, on a napkin at a formal dinner in London to mark the 50th anniversary of V.E. Day, Tudjman reportedly drew Ashdown a map of Bosnia and with one strike of the pendivided it into its Croat and Serb part, saying that "there will be no Muslim part," but Muslims will be a "small element of the Croatian state."


The napkin was submitted to the court as a exhibit, which Kehoe again showed to the courtroom [see Tribunal Update 68].


Nobilo sought to persuade the judges that Croatia's "real policy" differed from the "private wishes" of its president, by pointing to the fact that an alliance between Croat and Muslim forces was forged against their "common enemey", the Serbs. Having anticipated such an argument by the Defence, Prosecution team member, Andrew Cayley, quoted a statement given by expert-witness Dr Robert Donia, who maintained Croatia had "conducted a double-faced, Machiavellian policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina". When it suited its interests they were allies, he said. And when it did not they were not.


Cayley sought to persuade the judges that the prosecution had passed the litmus test of proving that the conflict in Central Bosnia, "although prima facie internal", it was nonetheless international in character. The parameters for this were defined in the recent Appeals Chamber Judgement in the Tadic case (see Tribunal Update 134). It was stated in the judgement that political and military authorities in Belgrade had "overall control" over the military and paramilitary forces of Republika Srpska, that acted as an "agent" of FRY, which led to the conclusion that there was an "international armed conflict" in that part of Bosnia in 1992.


"The only possible conclusion in the Blaskic case," Cayley believes, "is that in the Croat-Muslim war in Central Bosnia, the Republic of Croatia had "overall control" over the HVO forces, which went beyond the mere financing and equipping...to participation in the planning and supervision of its military operations." To support this, Cayley cites "the unity of political directing and control" of HVO and Bosnian HDZ by Croatian political leadership at the very top.


Furthermore, the Prosecution team argues, a general of the Croatian Army (HV), Janko Bobetko, established regional commands of the HVO, in which chief positions were occupied by Croatian Army officers. Another Croatian army general, Ante Roso, appointed Blaskic as commander of the Operative Zone of Central Bosnia. HV officers who joined HVO were paid by Zagreb, and automatically returned to their positions in the HV after their "mandates" in HVO had run out.


Moreover, HV units entered Central Bosnia "at the latest in January 1993" and together with HVO forces participated in the fighting against the B-H Army, whilst masking that participation with the change of insignia on uniforms. Finally, it is argued that the HV Supreme Commander, President Tudjman, personally transferred Blaskic from the HVO into the HV.


All these facts, Cayley concluded, prove Zagreb had "overall control" over the HVO, and that the HVO acted as the "agent" of the Republic of Croatia. That means that the Muslim victims in Central Bosnia were either directly in the hands of a "foreign power" or, indirectly, in the hands of the "agent" of that power, so that, as a result, they had the status of "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions.


The Defence, however, believes that the Appeals Chamber was wrong when it ruled in the Tadic case that its victims were "protected persons" since the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly sets the condition of "different citizenship." According to Blaskic's Defence counsel, Bosnian Muslims cannot be protected persons, because they were not victims in the hands of a foreign, "occupation force", but in the hands of Bosnian Croats who are the citizens of the same state: Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Moreover, adds Nobilo, the citizens of "co-belligerent states", which Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are, cannot be protected persons.


In their closing arguments, the Prosecution and the Defence also disagreed over what was actually proved during the two year trial. The prosecution claimed that it proved beyond reasonable doubt Blaskic's guilt on all counts of the indictment, and requested a life sentence for the accused.


The Defence meanwhile claimed that the Prosecution case had "progressively disintegrated and eroded" during the trial, and that the guilt of the accused was not proved, and asked the judges to declare Blaskic not guilty and release him.


Since it declared him a "tool" of the policy formulated in Zagreb, at the beginning of their closing argument, at its conclusion, the Prosecution gave Blaskic a poisonous "recognition" that he "successfully accomplished the task he was given." At the end of 1993, in the area of Central Bosnia under the control of Blaskic's units "there was practically no Muslims. The plan succeeded" - argued Kehoe.


Blaskic, Kehoe went on, did "not only participate in the plan of persecution, he thrived on it." For his "successfully accomplished task" he was rewarded by promotion first to Deputy Chief-Of-Staff, and, then, to Chief-of-Staff of the entire HVO.


The Prosecution placed the crimes committed in Ahmici and other places in the Lasva River Valley in April 1993, in the context of the implementation of the well-known Vance-Owen plan by the HVO.


The sequence of events - the Prosecution believes - clearly indicates that: on 2 April 1993, Bosnian Serbs rejected the Vance-Owen plan; on 3 April, Mate Boban, the President of the self-proclaimed Herzeg-Bosnia, demanded from the Bosnian side that it be implemented and set 15 April as a deadline when the units of the B-H Army in the "Croatian cantons" should be placed under the HVO command, threatening that the HVO will otherwise unilaterally implement the plan.


The day the deadline expired, the HVO evacuated the Croatian civilians, closed schools and prepared field hospitals, and the next day, the attacks commenced at dawn, on 16 April. The Defence's claims that "a surprise attack of the B-H Army" started that day were rejected by the Prosecutor as "untrustworthy", whilst proving this, among others, with the number of victims: only one member of the HVO was killed in "the surprise attack", whereas over 100 Muslim civilians were killed ONLY in Ahmici.


What happened there, the Prosecutor said, referring to the statements of numerous witnesses, was "not the result of action by rogue units, but by units carrying out the orders of the most powerful individual in the Lasva Valley - the accused Blaskic."


Listing other villages that were attacked and destroyed, as well as those inhabitants killed or expelled, Kehoe said that these places were only around 2 to 7 kilometres away from Vitez, where Blaskic's headquarters was located. "He could stand in front of the Hotel Vitez and watch what was happening in those villages," Kehoe argued.


In a similar way, by citing the statements of both Prosecution and Defence witnesses, the Prosecutor disputed - even mocked, as "nonsense" - the Defence's claims that Blaskic "did not know" about other crimes with which he was charged in the indictment: about the explosion of the truck-bomb in the Muslim part of Vitez (about which even the detainees in the cellars of the Cinema Vitez had been informed in advance); about the shelling of downtown Zenica; and the use of detained Muslims as "human shields" (in front of Blaskic's headquarters) and forcing them to dig trenches on the front-line.


The third member of the Prosecution team, Mark Harmon, had a task disputing some of the basic arguments of the Defence concerning Blaskic's limited authority and poor human and technical resources. Pointing to the presented evidence, Harmon claimed that it was not true that Blaskic commanded over "a peasant army" which was both untrained and undisciplined; that he did not have educated officers; that his headquarters had only the "most primitive and amateur" communications means at its disposal; that the accused did not control the Military Police and the Special Units, like the"Knights" (Vitezovi) and "Jokers", who were direct perpetrators of amajority of crimes in the Lasva Valley.


The Defence however held on to its key argument that the accused as the commander of the Operative Zone, had neither legal authority nor real control over those units, that were directly subordinated to the Ministry of Defence in Mostar.


Interpreting the evidence, Nobilo and Russel Hayman both emphasised that the trial unambiguously shows that there was a "dual chain of command" in the HVO, that the so-called "informal" or "parallel" chain was more powerful than the one headed by Blaskic. They pointed out that there existed "disguised strongmen, with real power and no responsibility" in the so-called HZ H-B.


Eluding to Dario Kordic, Nobilo argued that one such alleged strongman was "being tried [in the Hague] one floor up". While outside the military structures, Kordic, he said, had a significant factual influence on the army, and, precisely, on those units that were under the command of Mostar", that is, those that committed the crimes in the Lasva Valley.


"General Blaskic was not a governor, nor an absolute ruler. He had his jurisdictions, but others had them too, and he cannot be blamed for all the evil that took place in Central Bosnia."


Nobilo went on to argue that the judges nshould not seek to judge him as a symbol for evil committed by others.


The Defence's closing arguments in fact made substantial reference to "others" who might be guilty of crimes presently attributed to Blaskic. The accused's counsel blamed the gravest crime in the indictment - the massacre at Ahmici on 16 April 1993 - to the Military Police of the HVO commanded by Pasko Ljubicic, its Special Unit the "Jokers" and the Special HVO Unit the "Knights" under the command of Darko Kraljevic. All of those units, the Defence claims, were under the direct command of the Ministry of Defence in Mostar. Moreover, it was argued that Kordic had a much greater influence on these groups than Blaskic.


The orders Blaskic issued on 15 and 16 April, were according to the Defence's assessment, "legal, proper and reasonable", whereas Hayman described the prosecutor's claim about the existence of "secret orders" with which the massacre in Ahmici was ordered - as "speculation, inconsistent with events on the ground." The Defence also insists that Blaskic issued two orders for investigations to be iniated to determine who was responsible for the atrocities at Ahmici.


However, those investigations failed to bear fruit because of the obstruction of the Military Police and its political protectors in Mostar.


Moreover, the Defence attributes exclusive responsibility for the crimes that took place in the area of Busovaca to Kordic. Hence, it should not be surprising that a response arrived from the "upper floor" on Thursday and Friday.


The responsibility for crimes in Kiseljak and the surrounding area is attributed to the notorious Ivica Rajic, a fugitive from international justice whom the prosecution had accused of the massacre in the village of Stupni Do in 1995.


The explosion of the truck-bomb in the centre of Stari Vitez was, according to the Defence, a "private initiative" of late Darko Kraljevic, about which Blaskic did not know anything, just as he did not know anything about the attack on Stari Vitez carried out by Kraljevic's "Knights" in July 1993.


Finally, as regards the shelling of downtown Zenica in which at least 15 civilians were killed in April 1993 - the defence tried to raise "reasonable doubt" that Serb forces might in fact have been responsible, by quoting controversial statements by the witnesses about the calibre of shells and the direction from which they reportedly came.


Since part of the closing arguments took place in private sessions, where potentially decisive statements by some of the more important protected witnesses were discussed, it is impossible to assess with certainty which side presented the strongest summation of the Blaskic case.


The final assessment will be made by Judges Claude Jorda, Mohamed Shahabuddeen and Almiro Rodrigues who will revist some 30,000 pages of transcripts, containing the statements by 158 heard witnesses, and examine thousands of submitted exhibits by the Prosecution and the Defence.


Concluding the marathon trial, presiding Judge Jorda announced that the judges will attempt to pass a sentence as soon as possible. Judging by the experience from previous cases, there will be a wait of at least three to four months.


More IWPR's Global Voices