Blaskic Trial: The Defence Opens its Case

Tribunal Update 92: The Last Two Weeks in The Hague (31 August-12 September, 1998)

Blaskic Trial: The Defence Opens its Case

Tribunal Update 92: The Last Two Weeks in The Hague (31 August-12 September, 1998)

It will prove, however, that the accused was not responsible, and did everything in his power to prevent those crimes. If his power was insufficient, Blaskic cannot be blamed for this or for the crimes. "He is not a forceful person and he was probably the wrong man for the time", concluded Hayman, who is working with Zagreb lawyer Anto Nobilo on Blaskic's defence team.

The "time" Blaskic was wrong for is the period from autumn 1992 to spring 1994 when, according to the indictment, the Bosnian Croat forces under his command committed a series of grave war crimes against the Bosniak (Muslim) population of the Lasva Valley in Central Bosnia.

Some 102 prosecution witnesses, including survivors of massacres blamed on Blaskic's troops and numerous UN peacekeepers, gave evidence in the earlier stage of the trial which opened on 23 June 1997. By presenting their evidence the prosecution tried to prove not only that the crimes described in the indictment took place, but also that Blaskic-as commander of the Operational Zone Central Bosnia -had full control and command of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) forces operating in the area.

The defence, however, announced that it will prove that for most of the time specified in the indictment the HVO was "proclaimed on paper... but in reality it did not yet exist as an army". At the same time there were apparently "more capable Croat units on the territory... better equipped and trained... young, fit and aggressive... which acted on their own initiative... and sometimes engaged in criminal acts". Those units were set up and led by strong willed individuals, who used them as their private armies, and Hayman did not hesitate to mention some of them.

Several times he named Darko Kraljevic who, together with his paramilitary unit "Vitezovi", was also mentioned by many of the prosecution witnesses. Hayman blamed Kraljevic (who died in a traffic accident in 1995) for some of the worst crimes from the indictment. Given that "these independent units were not about to give up their independence" Blaskic, the defence maintains, was not in position to impose his command over them, and therefore cannot be held responsible for their crimes.

According to the prosecution and its witnesses, the HVO attack on the Bosniak villages of the Lasva Valley on 16 April, 1993, was a planned, organised and coordinated offensive. According to the defence, however, it was a defensive action ordered by Blaskic in order to prevent or to put a stop to "an all out Bosnian Army attack on HVO". The defence does not dispute that in that action more than 100 villagers of Ahmici were killed and that all Bosniak houses and mosques were destroyed. But it denies that this was done on Blaskic's order.

Furthermore, the defence maintains that Blaskic did not even know about it until commander of the British Battalion of UNPROFOR Colonel Bob Stewart informed him about the massacre. According to the defence, Blaskic was "absolutely horrified" and immediately ordered an investigation into the massacre.

True, the investigation bore no fruit, but according to the defence, this was not Blaskic's fault. First of all, the survivors of Ahmici fled to territory under the control of the Bosnian Army, out of reach of the HVO investigators. Secondly, the Bosnian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and BritBat--which all conducted interviews with survivors and gathered extensive information concerning the massacre--"never shared that information with Tihomir Blaskic". And given that "no one within the HVO stepped forward and provided information about the killing of civilians in Ahmici" Blaskic was not able to identify those responsible and punish them.

After all, the defence maintained, "the evidence will show that he had no authority whatsoever to punish anyone in the HVO or otherwise for any criminal act". Blaskic's authority to sanction HVO soldiers--asserts the defence--"was limited to matters pertaining to military discipline, such as deserting or lost weapons". All other matters were within the scope of the military prosecutor and the military court.

The defence announced that it will contest all other charges against General Blaskic in a similar way. On the subject of the explosion of a truck bomb in Stari Vitez, the defence says it was "planned and instigated by (late) Darko Kraljevic... without the knowledge of Tihomir Blaskic". In regard to the shells which hit the market in central Zenica, killing and wounding a large number of civilians, the defence maintains it is impossible to establish precisely where they were fired from and suggested that they could also have been fired from Serb lines.

The defence also announced that it will prove that Blaskic did not order the detention of any civilians but tried repeatedly to prevent it and to protect those that had been detained by local units. As for the crimes which, according to the indictment, were committed in Kiseljak--where one of Blaskic's commands was--the defence maintains they were committed by the local HVO commander Ivica Rajic.

Rajic is also indicted by the ICTY for the massacre in the village of Stupni Do and is still at large. Blaskic, Hayman admits, "knew it was his job to try and control Rajic... but he was not able to do so". This was partly because Rajic communicated directly with the main staff of the HVO in Mostar. The defence also announced that Blaskic issued orders strictly prohibiting the torching of houses and other commercial facilities and looting. He also ordered "special protection for sacred objects", such as mosques and other Muslim religious sites.

In addition, the defence disputes the charges of ethnic cleansing, pointing out that Blaskic "never directed the forcible movement of civilians from their homes", but that he always supported "freedom of movement". Last, but not the least, the defence announced that it will prove that the conflict between the HVO and the Bosnian Army was a civil war, and not an international armed conflict, as maintained by the prosecution.

The defence began its evidence with this argument, bringing witnesses who testified on the political and military background of the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia and the wars which followed it. Croatian historian Dusan Bilandzic talked about the inevitability of the breakdown of Yugoslavia, as well as about the role of Serbian nationalism and President Slobodan Milosevic in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

As a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party (former communists) Bilandzic spoke publicly in Croatia against President Franjo Tudjman's regime's plans to partition Bosnia. But at The Hague he denied the existence of such plans and tried to prove that Croatia was always for "inviolability of borders". Some of his earlier critical statements about plans to partition Bosnia, which the prosecution reminded him of under cross-examination, Bilandzic explained as "wrongful interpretation on the part of journalists".

Bilandzic also disowned his earlier public condemnations of the secret agreement to partition Bosnia allegedly reached by presidents Tudjman and Milosevic on 25 March, 1991, in Karadzordzevo. He said that, as a historian, he could talk only on the basis of public documents and not on the basis of speculations about secret meetings and agreements. According to him "the talks in Karadzordzevo were, in fact, a testing of the two sides, the Serbian and the Croatian, just before the possible breakout of war, where each side tried to gain extra time and outsmart the other". His cross-examination ended with the prosecutor Greg Kehoe quoting a sentence Bilandzic wrote once upon a time that says: "Criminal lies lead to criminal deeds". There were no further questions from the prosecution.

While Bilandzic could chose to testify as a historian or as a politician, the second defence witness, Admiral Davor Domazet, had no choice. The Croatian Defence Ministry allowed him to answer only those questions related to the "strategy" and not "tactics". There were no problems in the direct examination by defence counsel Anro Nobilo. The admiral talked about the strategy of what he called the "Serbian imperial power" and the role of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) in the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

Domazet, an officer with the JNA up until mid 1991, ran into problems under cross-examination. Prosecutor Andrew Cayley-himself an officer of the British Army-began to put certain tactical questions to him about the role of the Croatian Army (HV) in the Bosnian war. The admiral replied that he did not know about that and that even if he knew, he could not disclose military secrets.

As Domazet had commanded the military intelligence service of the HV at the time the indictment relates to, the prosecution asked him four times to give a simple yes or no to the question: "As a chief of military intelligence of HV, you had no knowledge of the deployment of the Croatian armed forces?" The defence objected to this, but the judges concluded that the prosecution questions were appropriate and that their repetition was a result of the witness's refusal to answer them. The admiral finally replied that his task was "to monitor forces of the enemy, and not my own forces".

Later on Domazet confirmed to the defence that the HV forces entered the Bosnian territory in order to efficiently defend the south of Croatia (Dubrovnik) from the attacks by Serbian forces and the JNA. He estimated that the HV forces entered some 10 to 15 km deep into Bosnian territory, but by no means as far as Central Bosnia and the Lasva Valley, where the witnesses for the prosecution in the Blaskic trial say they saw them. An agreement signed by presidents Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia represented a legal basis for the HV forces entering the territory of another state, the admiral suggested.

In the end, presiding Judge Claude Jorda thanked Domazet for helping the Trial Chamber to better understand the differences between strategy and tactics. "When you didn't want to answer, that was a strategy. When you did answer, it was tactics" concluded Judge Jorda.

Support our journalists