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Bosnian Croat Leaders in The Dock

Indictees enter their pleas a day after surrendering to the tribunal.
By Rachel S.

Six former military and political leaders of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, the wartime authority in the self-declared Bosnian Croat statelet of Herceg-Bosna, made their initial appearances before the tribunal on April 6.


The six received a warm sendoff in Croatia just a day earlier, with an estimated 300 people singing the national anthem as the men boarded a Croatian Airlines jet in Zagreb and headed to The Hague to voluntarily surrender to the tribunal.


All are charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims and Serbs from the self-declared Croat statelet of Herceg-Bosna, and to annex this area into a "Greater Croatia", during the 1992-95 war.


The accused are ex-members of the HVO's political and military wings: Jadranko Prlic, prime minister; Bruno Stojic, minister of defense; Slobodan Praljak and Milivoj Petkovic, military commanders; Valentin Coric, military police chief; and Berislav Pusic, leader of the exchange of prisoners commission. (For more about each, see "New Indictments: Who's Who.")


According to their indictment, the men are responsible for 26 counts of crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violations of the laws and customs of war.


"It is an extremely important case," Jean-Daniel Ruch, political advisor to the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, told IWPR.


The indictment, which alleges the leaders of the joint criminal enterprise tried to create a "Greater Croatia", provides the clearest charge to date that Croats were also trying to politically and territorially profit from the Bosnian war.


It comes less than three months after Hrvoje Sarinic, former aide to the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, testified in the trial against Slobodan Milosevic and confirmed that months before the outbreak of war the two presidents haggled over the division of Bosnia.


Tudjman, together with Gojko Susak, Janko Bobetko and Mate Boban former Croatian minister of defense, general and president of Herceg-Bosnia respectively - all of whom are now dead - are named in the indictment as participants in this joint criminal enterprise.


Among other things, the indictees are charged with persecutions, murder, rape, inhuman treatment, deportation and imprisonment of Bosnian Muslims and others in the area under their control, as well as the destruction or willful damage to institutions dedicated to religion or education, appropriation of property and plunder.


The 41-page indictment specifically refers to acts committed in Prozor, Gornji Vakuf, Jablanica, Mostar, Stolac, Capljina and Vares municipalities; the Heliodrom and Vojno camps; the Ljubuski municipality and detention centres; and the Dretelj and Gabela district military prisons.


Each accused played a significant role in "a system of ill-treatment involving a network of prisons, concentration camps, and other detention facilities which were systematically used in arresting, detaining, and imprisoning thousands of Bosnian Muslims in unlawful and harsh conditions, where they were subjected to or exposed to beatings, sexual assaults, and other deprivations and abuse," the indictment says.


It further accuses the men of involvement in "a system of ill-treatment designed and implemented to deport Bosnian Muslims to other countries or transfer them to parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina not claimed or controlled by Herceg-Bosna or the HVO".


At the April 6 hearing, presiding judge Alphonse Orie confirmed that the accused had read and understood the indictment, invited each to enter a plea, and inquired whether they had any complaints about the conditions of their detention, their family situation or their health needs.


When asked, Pusic expressed confusion about the charges against him, though he acknowledged that he understood what the indictment said. "I was surprised to find myself indicted of these things," he said, claiming that he was working on humanitarian issues at the time.


He also requested to see a medical specialist in the UN Detention Unit, explaining that he suffered a spinal surgery the previous week. "I only found out about the indictment while bedridden," he explained, and "voluntarily gave myself up".


A haggard-looking Pusic arrived in court on crutches and stood throughout the proceedings because of his injury.


Each of the other men, who, by contrast, appeared sharp and cheerful in pressed gray suits, confirmed that they had read and understood the indictment.


Orie then read aloud each of the indictment's counts. When he had finished, the six men stood, one by one, and delivered their pleas. Not guilty on all 26 counts, each said.


The appearance drew a large crowd. The visitors gallery was packed, and the tribunal's security officials refused to let additional people in. The courtroom itself was also crowded, with the six accused, their seven defense attorneys, and a bevy of guards filling one side of the room.


During the proceedings, two areas of possible concern arose.


The first had to do with the fact that many of the defense attorneys present currently represent, or previously represented, other defendants before the tribunal. Orie declined to say definitively whether there might be conflicts of interest involved.


The second occurred when it became apparent that the accused and their lawyers had not received the prosecution's annex to the indictment, which provided details about the identity of persons killed, wounded or sexually abused in certain cases.


After a few moments of confusion, Orie ordered the annex unsealed, though he stressed that it would remain confidential and that no one outside the defense team would be allowed to see it. He then ordered a brief recess, at which the accused reviewed the annex with their lawyers.


As the hearing was drawing to a close, Prlic asked for, and was given, permission to make a short statement. He told the tribunal, "I sympathise with Bosnia and Herzegovina and all the victims referred to in the indictment....The truth itself will set me free."


The surrender of the six men comes at a time when Croatia is seeking to show its cooperation with the tribunal, a requirement for its membership of the European Union, which it hopes to join in 2007.


Zagreb deny any knowledge of the whereabouts of the fugitive Ante Gotovina, a retired Croatian general, wanted by the tribunal for his role in the alleged murder of 150 ethnic Serbs civilians and the expulsion of many others from Croatia's Krajina region.


Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.


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