Court Hears Some Looting Was Tolerated

Prosecutor says evidence in military trials shows officers sanctioned stealing.

Court Hears Some Looting Was Tolerated

Prosecutor says evidence in military trials shows officers sanctioned stealing.

Tuesday, 1 September, 2009
The chief state prosecutor of Croatia testified at the Hague war crimes tribunal this week that acts of looting were tolerated within the Croatian army during the summer of 1995.



“I absolutely agree with your conclusion,” Mladen Bajic told the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, when the prosecution put it to him that evidence presented in cases prosecuted by the Split military prosecutor’s office following Operation Storm indicated that military superiors had sanctioned the stealing of goods by their own soldiers.



Bajic was testifying as a defence witness in the case of Ante Gotovina, who is standing trial with two fellow generals, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, for the shelling, torching and looting of Serb towns and villages in Croatia during and after the Croat offensive known as Operation Storm.



The August 4, 1995 military assault forced approximately 200,000 Serb inhabitants to flee the Krajina region of Croatia.



Gotovina was the commander of the Split Military District of the Croatian army, HV, from the time of the military operation until November 15, 1995.



This week, the ICTY prosecution presented documents from the case files of trials prosecuted at the Split military court following the August 1995 army operation.



These showed that defendants on trial for stealing had argued in their defence that their military commanders had sanctioned their stealing of property as large groups of soldiers loaded stolen items onto trucks in the aftermath of Operation Storm.



One soldier who had been indicted for theft was meanwhile given a position in a Croatian military police battalion, according to the files.



The witness, who in 1995 was serving as the deputy military prosecutor at the military prosecutor’s office in Split, said that while there was no problem with his office failing to prosecute crimes, the crimes themselves were not reported from the ground.



He said that he knew that certain crimes had not been reported from evidence presented in those cases that were prosecuted after Operation Storm.



“From the case files that were presented to me [while in the military prosecutor’s office]... it follows undoubtedly from them that the theft... by members of the Croatian army from civilian buildings in the area was widespread,” Bajic said.



“All reports of criminal offences submitted to state prosecutors were processed, but the problem did not lie with the military prosecutor’s cases but with cases that went unreported,” he told judges.



According to the indictment, Gotovina facilitated the criminal activity of his colleagues and subordinates by “reporting false, incomplete or misleading information regarding crimes committed, while knowing that widespread destruction and plunder of property belonging to Serb civilians ... were ongoing”.



This week, Gotovina’s lawyer Luka Misetic followed up the witness’s comments by asking him how he concluded that criminal activity by Croatian troops had been tolerated when there were evidently convictions for the acts of looting which he described.



Questioning the witness earlier in the week, Misetic had also pointed to a total of 66 crimes – 63 of theft and three murders – committed by members of the Croatian military in the aftermath of Operation Storm that had been reported to the military prosecutor.



“It is true that the military police did react and filed criminal reports and that these cases saw the perpetrators convicted,” the witness agreed.



“But the fact of the matter was that thefts like these which were not processed, and [which] we knew had happened, had been far more in number.”



The witness added that similar observations – that far more crimes were committed than were being reported – had been made in the criminal judgements passed in those trials that were held.



During his testimony over two days, Bajic also told the court about the extent to which a commander was responsible for combating the criminal behaviour of his troops.



“There are no obligations in terms of reporting [crimes], except pursuant to a request of military police or a public prosecutor or military prosecutor to give certain information to enable the military prosecutor to know whether criminal responsibility exists,” he said.



Responding to a question from the defence, he also said that if a military commander knew that the military police had been informed of a crime then there was no need to inform them about it a second time.



Misetic asked the witness about the resources available to the military prosecutor’s office, the workload of which, according to Bajic, was five or seven times that of the civilian prosecutor’s office.



“The prosecutor and military judges had a very large case load in terms of the number of cases, several times the normal case load for each official. For that reason, we worked almost 24-7,” Bajic said.



When asked later by the prosecution if such a workload had resulted in the dropping of criminal cases, the witness said that it had not and that all cases were “brought to a close according to the prescribed procedure”.



“All criminal reports filed before the military prosecutor’s office ... were received by us and processed. The fact that there were five or six military prosecutors did not have a bearing on either the quality of their work or the fate of the cases, whether they were closed or not,” Bajic said.



The Gotovina defence also asked the witness why cases of unlawful killings had been inadequately followed up after Operation Storm.



The prosecution alleges that this was the case and had previously presented the witness with evidence to support this.



Bajic said that cases had not been investigated thoroughly because the prosecutor’s office was overworked and that many perpetrators and witnesses had fled the area, inhibiting the gathering of evidence.



There was also not the level of cooperation that exists between different countries’ prosecutors’ offices today, he said.



He also said that the Croatian authorities had become more serious about prosecuting crimes carried out following Operation Storm after 2001.



According to the prosecution’s indictment, the alleged joint criminal plan to rid the Krajina of Serbs included the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman as well as other members of the government.



The prosecutor presented the witness with comments made by senior Croatian officials, including the minister of justice, at a meeting of the council in charge of cooperation with the ICTY on November 6, 1998, which mentioned a strategy not to prosecute crimes committed following Operation Storm.



The prosecutor then asked Bajic if under Tudjman’s regime, there was reluctance on the part of the political leadership to investigate such crimes.



Bajic said he had no direct knowledge of any position taken by the political leadership.



The witness was not asked about his knowledge of the officials’ comments presented by the prosecutor. However, Bajic said that many crimes had not been prosecuted when he took over the position of chief state prosecutor in 2002, although he gave no further details.



Misetic later asked Bajic if he noticed evidence of any wider intention not to prosecute crimes and he said that his office was uninhibited in its ability to prosecute Croats for crimes against Serbs if there was evidence to do so.



“I was not exposed to any pressure from anyone ... As far as I know, colleagues from the Split office of the prosecutor did not have similar experience [of being under pressure not to prosecute crimes] either,” Bajic said.



The Gotovina defence will continue its case next week.



Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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