Croat Official Denies Policy to Expel Serbs

Former defence minister said president endorsed positive discrimination towards Serbs in Croatia in 1995.

Croat Official Denies Policy to Expel Serbs

Former defence minister said president endorsed positive discrimination towards Serbs in Croatia in 1995.

Saturday, 10 October, 2009
A defence witness in the trial of former Croatian army general Ivan Cermak denied that the then Croatian leadership deliberately encouraged a climate of fear in order to drive Serb civilians out of the Krajina region.

Goran Dodig, the former Croatian minister of defence, told Hague tribunal judges this week that there was no official Croatian policy aimed at expelling the Serb population from the area – as is alleged by prosecutors in the case.

Cermak is accused, along with generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, of responsibility for crimes committed against Serb civilians – including looting, arson and killings – during and after Operation Storm, a Croatian military offensive aimed at retaking the Serb-held Krajina region in August 1995.

The indictment alleges that Gotovina, Markac and Cermak participated in a joint criminal enterprise, along with then Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, the ex-Croatian minister for defence Gojko Susak and others.

The goal of this was the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by means of force, fear, persecution, forced displacement, transfer, deportation, and destruction of property, the indictment says.

It further states that the plan was pursued by creating a “climate of fear” in the region through the use of propaganda, disinformation, psychological warfare and by “promoting, instigating, facilitating, encouraging and/or condoning the perpetration of violent acts against Serbs”.

According to the indictment, Tudjman appointed Cermak commander of the Knin Garrison on August 5, 1995. In this position, Cermak was charged with maintaining order within the HV (Croatian army) units operating in the garrison, as well as civilian police, it says.

Cermak is also accused of permitting and denying ongoing criminal activity during Operation Storm, failing to establish order among his subordinates, and providing false assurances to the international community that actions to stop such crimes were being taken. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Dodig, who served as Croatian minister of defence from October 1993 to June 1994, told judges that he first heard about Operation Storm when it began on August 4, 1995.

The witness, who at that time was head of the Croatian government’s Office for Inter-Ethnic Relations, said that he had not been consulted about the operation, nor was his opinion solicited by Tudjman’s office, the ministry of defence, or the ministry of the interior.

Prosecutor Ryan Carrier questioned Dodig about allegations in the indictment, specifically what Carrier described as the Croatian leadership’s “policy to encourage and condone persecution against the Serbs after Operation Storm to create a climate of fear and drive Serbs” out of the Krajina region.

But Dodig denied that the Croatian government was involved in any such attempt to forcibly remove the Serb population.

“I would have known during the war if such a tendency had existed,” Dodig said, referring to the prosecutor’s accusations that the government had taken steps to drive out Serb civilians.

The prosecution then asked Dodig about Petar Pasic, a Serb and the former civilian representative in Krajina's capital Knin.

Dodig said that he had participated in several meetings with Pasic, telling judges that he was a “good, decent man” who was “accepted by [Croat] authorities”.

Carrier then presented a transcript to the court from a meeting held on August 22, 1995, in which Tudjman and then deputy prime minister Dr Jure Radic discussed the civilian representative in Knin.

During this conversation, Radic said that it was problematic when the person in civilian authority was inadequate, without revealing to whom he was referring.

“The one in Knin is no good. He’s a Serb,” Carrier quoted Radic as saying in the transcript.

“He’s a Serb?” Tudjman said. “Replace him.”

According to the transcript, Radic agreed, saying that the person they were talking about was “no good for anything”.

Tudjman then said there was “no reason for a Serb being [in Knin] right now”, Carrier read from the transcript.

The prosecution asked Dodig if he agreed that Tudjman and Radic had been referring to Pasic in the conversation, to which Dodig replied that he did.

Carrier then asked Dodig why he had said that “all authorities accepted” Pasic, when it seemed clear from the transcript that the Croatian leadership objected to a Serb holding a position of civilian leadership.

“The president was a man who wanted efficiency. It wasn’t that Pasic was a Serb, the point was that he was inefficient and ineffectual,” Dodig said.

The prosecution then asked Dodig about a statement he gave to tribunal prosecutors in April 2009.

In this, Carrier said, the witness had described an official policy of “positive discrimination” towards Serbs in Croatia, saying that Serbs were given greater rights than other citizens.

“[Tudjman] wanted Serbs to feel like citizens that were an integral part of the state,” Dodig told the court. To enable that, Dodig said, Tudjman had endorsed the idea of giving greater rights to Serbs than to other citizens, including voting rights.

Carrier said that Dodig had also noted in his statement that Tudjman wanted Croats abroad in South America and Europe to return after Operation Storm. According to Dodig’s statement, Carrier said, the president also said that Serbs who had fled Croatia during Operation Storm should not be allowed to return home.

He asked the witness about this unequal treatment which Dodig said was given to Serbs and Croats by the president.

“Do you agree that [this] differential treatment is very difficult to reconcile with your statement regarding Tudjman’s view that Serbs were an integral part of Croatia?” Carrier asked.

Dodig replied by saying that the president had “explicitly” told him that he did not have a negative attitude towards the Serbs.

The prosecution asked Dodig whether his descriptions of Tudjman’s actions and “attitudes” towards the Serbs seemed contradictory.

Dodig said that “liking” someone was “emotional”, while having a “positive attitude” towards an individual was “practical”.

The prosecution then asked Dodig when he had first arrived in Knin in August 1995.

The witness replied that he arrived a few days after Operation Storm, which he referred to as after “the liberation of Knin”, to visit the base of the United Nations Confidence Restoration Operation, UNCRO.

Dodig told the judges that during his time in the area, he did not notice any considerable damage to the buildings.

The prosecution asked if he had noticed any evidence of looting by the HV. Dodig said he had not.

Carrier said that during the trial, witnesses had testified about looting, arson and destruction of civilian property in Knin by Croatian troops during the aftermath of Operation Storm.

He then quoted part of Dodig’s statement to the court, in which the witness said that “things we did not want to happen” took place in Knin.

Carrier asked Dodig if the “things we did not want to happen” referred to in his statement were arson and looting.

Dodig did not respond to the question directly, and replied, “The statement was based on things I learned since Operation Storm, not on what I knew at the time.”

Carrier also asked Dodig about part of his statement in which he said he did not believe Cermak had known about any crimes being committed by Croatian soldiers in Knin at the time.

“In my opinion, [Cermak] didn’t know because he would have told me had he known,” Dodig said.

Carrier then asked the witness about comments Cermak made to the media in 1995 about crimes committed by Croat soldiers.

“Did it surprise you that Cermak told interviewers that he was aware that members of HV committed crimes during this period – looting, burning, killing?” the prosecutor asked.

“At that moment… I had supposed he didn’t know,” Dodig replied.

The trial continues next week.

Julia Hawes is an IWPR contributor in The Hague.
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