Croatia: Funding the Generals

As donations pour into a private foundation set up to pay for the defence of Croatians accused of war crimes, questions are raised about how the government in Zagreb decides who gets state legal aid.

Croatia: Funding the Generals

As donations pour into a private foundation set up to pay for the defence of Croatians accused of war crimes, questions are raised about how the government in Zagreb decides who gets state legal aid.

It wasn’t just football chants ringing from the terraces when 45,000 fans gathered earlier this month at the Maksimir stadium. And they had more on their minds than the footballing fate of Croatian champions Dynamo Zagreb.



Almost as important as the match itself was the chance for supporters to show their support for a man they consider a national hero.



Singing “Ante Gotovina is hiding in our hearts”, the capacity crowd gave freely to a newly-established fund to defend Croatia’s favourite general, who is facing trial for war crimes in The Hague.



With Gotovina’s 10-year-old son looking on, Dynamo Zagreb donated all the earnings from the game to the Foundation For Truth About the Homeland War.



The foundation was set up earlier this year and says its aim is to support the legal defence of Gotovina and other Croatian defendants at the Hague tribunal, as well as to publicise the view that Zagreb’s role in the Croatian conflict was no more than legitimate national defence.



The foundation is run by lawyer Ivan Curkovic, who has been joined on the board by folk singer Miroslav Skoro, lawyers Igor Zidic and Ante Zupic and two Croatian diaspora representatives.



With the 150,000 euro income from the football match, the total raised by the foundation so far comes to more than 300,000 euro.



The money is a testament to the continued popularity of Gotovina – who is widely viewed by Croatians as a hero for leading the 1995 operation known as Operation Storm to regain Serb-held territory.



That popularity has not diminished since Gotovina was captured last year while hiding in the Canary Islands, and even appears to be growing as his trial approaches in The Hague. Croatian media have reported that the Gotovina “brand” now rivals that of Che Guevara.



The general has pleaded not guilty to four counts of crimes against humanity and three of violations of the laws and customs of war, all relating to Operation Storm. Prosecutors want to join his case with that of two other Croatian generals, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, who are accused of being members of a joint criminal enterprise led by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, that was, the prosecution says, formed in order to forcibly expel 200,000 Serbs during Operation Storm.



From the moment he was arrested last year, Gotovina’s supporters began gathering money for his defence. The city of Zadar donated around 125,000 euro and his birthplace Pakostane 5,000 euro.



In fact, fundraising has gone so well that the foundation has invited other defence teams with Croatian clients at the tribunal to apply for support.



This expanded offer was sparked by news reports that another former general in Croatia’s military, Rahim Ademi, was going to have to sell his apartment to pay some 70,000 euro in legal costs. The case of Ademi, is now with the Croatian judiciary, having been transferred back under tribunal rules that allow low and middle ranking cases to be heard in Balkan countries.



Ademi has to pay his own costs, but others in apparently similar positions have had legal expenses paid by the Croatian state. Ademi’s lawyer Cedo Prodanovic, who in the end waived his fee, is also being paid by the Zagreb government to defend another accused general, Cermak.



The government’s different treatment of the two men, paying for the defence of one but not the other, is seen as something of an anomaly.



“I’m ashamed of the differences the state draws between the generals,” Ademi’s wife told the Croatian media last month.



The government in Zagreb also spent a large sum – which some reports put as high as 20 million US dollars – on the defence of General Tihomir Blaskic, who was commander of the Croat paramilitary forces in Bosnia, and not a member of Croatia’s own military at all. Blaskic was sentenced to 45 years imprisonment for war crimes committed by his troops against Bosnian Muslims, but this sentence was cut to nine years and he was released in 2004 because he had served most of that time already.



By contrast, six other senior Bosnian Croat political and military figures currently facing trial for alleged crimes committed in Herzeg Bosna, a self-declared Croat entity within Bosnia, are receiving no support from Zagreb.



“Why are some ‘ours’ and some ‘theirs’?” asked Tomislav Jonic, who represents Valentin Coric, one of the six, on hearing that there would be no financial help from the Croatian government.



The Croatian government has steadfastly refused to answer questions about the issue, though President Stjepan Mesic was drawn into the debate, saying that all defendants should receive state support regardless of whether they are tried in The Hague or in Croatia.



But this pledge has yet to be implemented by the government, which is led by Mesic’s political opponents.



Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader has publicly supported the work of the private foundation, suggesting indirectly that the government is more than willing to hand over the costly responsibility of defending its generals.



The only role the authorities seem willing to play is to send their own lawyer to the trials as an amicus curiae – friend of the court – to challenge prosecution claims that war crimes were the result of a “joint criminal enterprise”, an allegation which forms the basis for the indictments against Gotovina, Cermak, Markac and others.



The foundation’s president, Curkovic, describes it as a “citizens’ initiative which is apolitical, non-partisan and non-government”. Despite Sanader’s expression of support, he said his organisation is not coordinating with the government.



He said about 50 per cent of donations have come from ordinary Croatians and half from organisations or municipal departments.



Curkovic said he has already been approached by the defence team of General Mirko Norac, whose case is joined to that of Ademi and will be heard in Croatia.



“Our principle is that we are calling on everybody to contact us and present us with their defence strategy programme and how much it will cost. After that, the executive board decides about financing the defence,” he said. “All the accused can contact us. The government doesn’t have the resources to help everyone.”



But many defence lawyers are not aware that the original purpose of funding only Gotovina’s defence has changed.



Prodanovic has had no contact with the foundation so far. “If the foundation has been formed to finance the defence of generals, then it would be logical for it to contact us,” he said.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in Zagreb.
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