Court Told Croatia Did Not Cover Up Crimes

Defence witness in the case against three Croatian generals claims Croatia was only trying to clear up the Krajina region after 1995 Operation Storm.

Court Told Croatia Did Not Cover Up Crimes

Defence witness in the case against three Croatian generals claims Croatia was only trying to clear up the Krajina region after 1995 Operation Storm.

A senior Croatian interior ministry official testifying at the Hague trial of former Croatian general Ante Gotovina this week denied that Croatian forces under his command tried to cover up evidence of war crimes committed against ethnic Serbs during Zagreb’s 1995 Operation Storm.



Gotovina and fellow generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of orchestrating the killing of dozens of people and the shelling and torching of Serb towns and villages as Croat forces retook the Serb-controlled Krajina region during the Operation Storm counter-offensive.



The operation to retake the territory began at dawn on August 4, 1995 and ended four days later with a resounding victory for the Croats.



Prosecutors allege that the three generals were behind an orchestrated campaign of looting and destruction meant to drive out the local population, including the torching of houses belonging to Serbs and the unlawful killing and inhumane treatment of Serb civilians. An estimated 150,000 ethnic Serbs fled their homes at the end of Operation Storm in kilometre-long columns of cars, tractors and carts, many never to return.



Witness Zdravko Zidovec, then a deputy to Croatia’s interior minister, was at the time put in charge of Operation Return, an action launched straight after the end of Operation Storm with the stated aim of clearing up the area and taking stock of the situation. The prosecution, however, says that Operation Return actually aimed to hide or destroy evidence of these crimes and put pressure on remaining local Serbs to leave the area.



“Before everything, [Operation Return] was about the business of cleaning the area after military action ended,” Zidovec said. “Because, regretfully, we assumed that a great number of houses and apartments would be abandoned.”



Asked by the defence if he was ever ordered to cover up crimes, he said, “No, never.”



The indictment against the three generals says that at least 30 people were killed in Knin and at least 150 in the whole of the Krajina region in the period from August to November 1995. The prosecution says that the Croatian army, HV, knew the Krajina region lacked proper fortifications, and used excessive shelling to “demoralise civilians and get them to flee”.



Some prosecution witnesses, especially former United Nations military and civilian officials, have previously testified that two days after the beginning of the attack they saw “organised looting and burning of Serbian houses”.



The defence counters that the Croatian army under Gotovina’s command tried hard to keep order in the region after the end of Operation Storm, but in the chaos of the situation was not able to prevent crimes committed by individual soldiers or groups of civilians who were drunk on victory and bent on revenge.



Zidovec testified that Operation Return was conducted by members of the civil protection corps, not by the Croatian army, and was thus outside Gotovina’s command.



He described how in the daily work of Operation Return, members of the civil protection corps would find and retrieve a dead body, then leave it in the care of a forensics team for identification, including fingerprinting and photographing, before finally burying it.



“If there were some doubts that the death wasn’t the consequence of combat but the consequence of violence, then criminal police would continue the investigation,” Zidovec said.



In the same manner, when a fire technician determined that a house had not been destroyed by shelling but been set on fire deliberately by hand, a further criminal investigation was ordered as well, Zidovec said, with the defence presenting as corroborating evidence the administrative form completed by such investigative teams.



Another part of the clear-up procedure involved going into some 48,000 abandoned houses in the Krajina region and checking for the bodies of dead people or animals, as well as removing leftover food to prevent the spread of disease. If a house was locked, the investigative teams would have to break in, Zidovec added.



The discussion then moved to whether the Croatian army or special police participated in Operation Return, as some prosecution witnesses had testified earlier in the trial.



The defence sought to prove that the witnesses could have been confused by the uniforms and wrongly identified the people taking part in the operation, and asked Zidovec to compare the HV uniforms with those of the civil protection teams, which were “grayish-greenish-brownish” featuring an orange patch with a blue triangle.



Zidovec added that he never saw any members of the special police guarding the control spots. During cross examination, the prosecution referred to a contradictory statement Zidovec gave to prosecution investigators in June 2007 on the participation of HV members in Operation Return, and presented to the court a document showing General Cermak ordered HV units to clear up the area.



Zidovec said he did not know of any coordination of civil protection units with the HV, apart from the units asking the HV for logistical support, such as asking to borrow trucks and dredgers.



The prosecution then presented a document issued by the command area of Split on August 1, 1995, ordering HV members to join in clearing up the area together with the police but also individually.



Zidovec said he had never seen the document before and knew nothing about it.



In further questioning by the prosecution on his role in Operation Return, the witness described his duties in setting up reception centres for Serb civilians.



Zidovec said that the centres were meant to help people who did not have their documents or were too old or infirm to move. Civilians who wanted to return to their homes were warned about the dangers of doing so right after the military action while things were still not under control, Zidovec added.



He rejected the prosecutor’s suggestion that ethnic Serbs had been intimidated by Croatian forces so they left the area. When the prosecution spoke of one case where civilians were chased out of their houses by HV and transferred to a reception centre against their will, Zidovec denied that people were taken to these centres by force.



“I don’t know any example of members of the civilian protection units forcibly bringing someone to a reception centre,” he said. “Even UN personnel suggested to Serbian civilians to get to reception centres to regulate their status.”



He said that “it was about 4,100 people who went through reception centres”, and added that no international observers ever “had any complaints about the treatment of civilians in the reception centres”.



The trial continues next week.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.
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