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

Bosnian Croat Insider Awaits Sentence

Ivica Rajic set to testify at upcoming Bosnian Croat war crimes trial as judges deliberate on how much time he should serve in prison.
By Goran Jungvirth
Awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to crimes against Muslim civilians, former Bosnian Croat commander Ivica Rajic’s time as a Hague defendant is coming to an end.

But as an important insider witness in a series of upcoming trials, he will be seeing plenty more of the tribunal’s judges and courtrooms.

Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Rajic - the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, commander for Kiseljak and Vares in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1993 – pleaded guilty in October 2005 to four out of ten charges of violating the laws and customs of war. He also agreed to testify against other Hague indictees.

Prosecutors confirmed this week that Rajic is scheduled to testify at the joint trial of Jadranko Prlic, former prime minister of Herceg Bosna; Bruno Stojic, its defence minister; Valentin Coric, a military police commander in the Croatian Defence Council, HVO; Berislav Pusic, who was in charge of prisoner exchanges; and Slobodan Praljak and Milivoj Petkovic, both senior HVO commanders. The six are charged with war crimes against Muslims in Herceg-Bosna, a breakaway region in Bosnia and Hercegovina set up by local Croat leaders.

Prosecutors last year agreed to a prison term of between 12 and 15 years for Rajic. The judges, however, are not obliged to follow this recommendation, and at a hearing on April 7, the bench, led by Judge Christine Van Den Wyngaert, heard arguments from both sides about the length of sentence.

Prosecutor Kenneth Scott began by describing what he called the “horror” that occurred in the Bosnian towns of Stupni Do and Vares when the HVO took control after an attack in late October 1993.

“HVO soldiers chased civilians out of their houses and places where they were hiding, stole their valuables, executed and killed a certain number of men, women, elderly and children and sexually harassed Muslim women. It was a real nightmare,” said Scott.

The prosecutor then described a series of incidents in Vares during which civilians were attacked: “When one group of Muslims - one man, nine women and three children - tried to escape, the man was killed, and his half burned body was found afterwards at the place where the bullet hit him. Two women and three children were killed in front of their house.”

He said at least 36 Muslims were killed in Vares and around 37 in Stupni. The way they were killed, said Scott, put paid to defence claims that most casualties occurred during military action.

Scott gave an example of one such “debatable” killing. “Refik Likic was chased out of his house along with other 16 persons. They were all made to give their valuables to the HVO soldiers. While that was happening, HVO soldiers killed Likic, and when he fell to the ground, they fired [at his body] at least one more bullet,” he said. “You can hardly call that death in armed conflict.”

Although the prosecutor agreed that the number killed was not as large as in other war crimes cases before the tribunal, he said the severity of the crimes gives them added weight.

He showed 12 minutes of TV footage of destroyed and burned villages and described how civilians were robbed, beaten, tortured and killed. Some were locked into houses, which were set on fire while the people inside were alive. Many children were among the victims, he said.

HVO members knew in advance what was going to happen, he said, presenting the testimony of a Muslim detainee who was told by a soldier just one day before the attack on October 22 that “tomorrow we’ll attack your village and kill everything alive”.

After the incident, the HVO tried to cover its tracks by denying UNPROFOR, the United Nations body in charge of peacekeeping at the time, access to the villages, according to the prosecutor.

He said Croatia’s first president, the late Franjo Tuđman, ordered Rajic’s dismissal after the incident out of concern about how the international community would react after the discovery of such “terrible crimes”.

Though Rajic was fired by his commander General Tihomir Blaskic, he was immediately reinstated to the same position under the pseudonym Viktor Andric.

“No one was punished for those crimes and Rajic was even promoted afterwards,” said Scott.

“Now after 12 years, we are here and Mr Rajic has been found guilty. The victims have waited too long for justice.”

Rajic’s defence counsel, Doris Kosta, countered that he was acting under orders from Petkovic – whose trial starts April 26. “Rajic didn’t go to Vares because he wanted to, but because he was ordered to,” said Kosta.

Kosta denied the events in Stupni Do were planned, saying they were a consequence of the “war whirlwind in Bosnia and Hercegovina at that time”.

She explained that the massacres in Stupni Do happened after the expulsion of 13,000 Bosnian Croats from Kakanj and the fall of Kopljari to the Bosnian Muslim army. The HVO units under Rajic’s command – known as Apostles and Maturice - suffered heavy losses, which, according to Kosta, explained their brutality during the takeover of the two places.

Kosta quoted an HVO soldier, Dominik Ilijasevic, who said that during the attack “everyone was out of their minds because of the previous events”.

Another line of defence was that the people of Stupni Do refused to surrender their weapons when requested to do so by Rajic.

Kosta also defended Rajic’s failure to surrender voluntarily to the tribunal, accusing the Croatian government of not letting him give himself up.

She said the authorities in Zagreb wanted him out of the way at the time because Blaskic was then on trial in The Hague.

Blaskic returned to Zagreb in 2004 to a hero’s welcome after his sentence for war crimes was cut from 45 to nine years – time he had already spent in the UN detention unit.

Since then, the prosecution has filed a controversial application to reopen the case on the basis of new facts. No decision has yet been taken but should the case proceed, Rajic could be called to testify against his former commander whose wartime policies he described in court as “crazy”.

Blaskic - the HVO commander in central Bosnia – originally stood trial on a number of counts, including the most infamous episode of the Croat-Muslim conflict, the massacre of more than 100 civilian inhabitants of the Muslim village of Ahmici in 1993.

However, documents from the state archives in Zagreb which emerged after the Tudjman’s death in 2000 were accepted by The Hague’s appeals chamber as proof of Blaskic's innocence for some of the crimes.

The documents suggested the existence of a parallel chain of command bypassing Blaskic, and stretching from the Zagreb government to Bosnian Croat political leaders and the commanders of local military police units.

Rajic, however, denies that this parallel chain of command ever existed.

He expressed sorrow for all the victims in Stupni Do and Vares, arguing that their killings were “unnecessary”, as was the war between Bosnian Croats and Muslims. He added, “Only the truth can help future generations … and I’ll bring it out, no matter what threats and physical attacks I [have] experienced.”

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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