COURTSIDE: Tuta & Stela Trial

Witness claims Croat forces had orders to protect Muslim civilians.

COURTSIDE: Tuta & Stela Trial

Witness claims Croat forces had orders to protect Muslim civilians.

Another protected witness testified in defence of Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic and Vinko "Stela" Martinovic last week, claiming that the Convicts Battalion Tuta allegedly commanded was set up to defend "good against evil" and did not commit any crimes.

The witness claimed that Tuta's forces were set up to protect the Mostar area from Serb attack. Meanwhile, the prosecution alleges that the Convicts Battalion went on to persecute the local Muslims. The defence says Naletilic was never the chief of the battalion but merely acted as an operational leader.

The judges asked why Tuta appeared to make decisions if he was not the real leader. The witness replied that this was because he was seen as "the most innovative and most creative" of the soldiers and was good at decision-making.

Tuta allegedly left his operative post in autumn 1992 for health reasons and was replaced by Mario Hrkac. The defence says the battalion remained associated with Naletilic because of his charisma.

Another protected witness denied an attack against Muslims in the area was planned, as the indictment claims. Instead, he told the court that Bosnian Muslim forces had blocked the Jablanica area near Mostar in spring 1993, plundering shops and limiting civilian freedom of movement.

The witness went on to say that a Croatian offensive in the area was unfeasible as only ten per cent of the local population was Croat.

On April 16, 1993, he said, the Muslims in the witness' home village of Doljani fled in the night, and Bosniak forces proceeded to attack, killing 36 civilians and taking 250 to detention centres. But as the fighting continued, he added, the Croat forces gained the upper hand.

The remaining Muslim civilians in Doljani and nearby Sovici were not killed but were assembled in villages behind the front line and "looked after" by the local Croats, the witness continued.

The Croats at first refused to "release" them without a reciprocal gesture from the Muslim side, the court heard. But in May they were set free even though Croats on the other side remained in prison.

Questioned on destruction of the mosque in Sovici and burning of Muslim homes - which the indictment describes as a consequence of the battalion's attack on the village - the witness said the company had condemned these acts but could not prevent them. "We feel ashamed to this very day," he said.

The witness said criminal groups beyond army control invariable looted belongings regardless of their owner's ethnic loyalty.

He recalled a joke that was common at the time but he presented it to court as a fact. A group of criminals robbed a bus full of civilians. One old woman had realised the thieves were Croats and exclaimed, "My children! But we are also Croat!" One of the criminals snapped back, "Grandma, no one is asking if you are Muslim or Croat. This is a robbery, not a population census."

The indictment also alleges that on May 9, 1993 the Convicts' Battalion took part in an offensive against the Muslim population of Mostar.

A third protected witness, then an HVO commander for Mostar, said the

battalion was not present in the town at that time and claimed that Tuta had never attended any of their meetings.

He supported defence claims that the HVO had orders to protect Muslim civilians rather than expel them and said Stela was not involved in the persecution of Muslims.

Mirna Jancic is an IWPR assistant editor.

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