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COURTSIDE: Tuta & Stela Trial

Defence say Stela's infamous unit was no more than a bunch of neighbours defending their homes
By Mirna Jancic

The lawyer acting for Vinko "Stela" Martinovic, accused of persecuting Muslims in Herzegovina during the Bosnian conflict, last week opened the defence case by seeking to downplay his client's role in the war.


It follows the completion of the defence case by Stela's co-accused, Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic.


Stela's defence counsel Branko Seric spoke for several hours on the background to the Croat-Muslim conflict in Bosnia that broke out in the spring of 1993, and the establishment of the Croatian community of Herceg-Bosna.


Stela is accused of having led an anti-terrorist unit called Mrmak, which was subordinated to Tuta and operated as part of the Croat forces in the town of Mostar. However, his defence denied the importance of this unit, saying it comprised "boys from the neighbourhood", was named after Stela's dog.


The reason suspicion fell on Stela, said Seric, was because of a "media campaign" and the efforts of the Bosnian Agency for Information and Documentation, AID, which he accused of "fabricating witnesses". The defence added that the prosecution had decided "to side with one party in the conflict".


Seric insisted Herceg-Bosna "had no intention of joining Croatia" and was set up out of "historical necessity" to protect Bosnian Croats at a time when the authorities in Sarajevo could not withstand the attack by the Yugoslav National Army, JNA.


The defence said relations between Bosnian Croats and Muslims deteriorated owing to the "Islamicisation" of Sarajevo's political scene and because the Bosniak leadership "sought to compensate for the land lost to Serbs by taking it away from Croats".


Around 30 witnesses are expected to be called during the defence's case, which should last until September.


Among the first to take the stand last week was Stela's brother, Jadranko Martinovic, who testified that the accused's unit was not an organised formation but a group of neighbours defending their home turf.


They followed Stela's orders only because he was "the best at making decisions". Judge Liu Daqun warned the defence that the witness' relationship to the accused meant his testimony would not carry much weight.


Martinovic accused the Bosnian and Croatian intelligence services of sacrificing his brother "in order to protect the real culprits". Rejecting the possibility that Stela had persecuted Serbs and Muslims in Mostar, he claimed his brother's non-Croat neighbours "loved him to this day".


Mirna Jancic is an IWPR assistant editor.