Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia Shows It Can Try War Crimes

By Goran Jungvirth
By IWPR

The trial of generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac, which ended last month, demonstrated that Croatia is capable of prosecuting its own war crimes suspects - when it wants to.

Although Croatian NGOs and political analysts are normally quick to point out mistakes made by local courts, they all agreed that the Ademi and Norac trial – the first to be transferred from the Hague tribunal to the region – was professionally run.



Marin Mrcela, the presiding judge, proved that the Croatian judiciary has some capable and intelligent people.



Norac was sentenced at the end of May to seven years in prison for crimes committed against ethnic Serbs during the 1993 Medak Pocket operation. Ademi was acquitted of all charges against him.



The legality of the offensive was never in question because it liberated an area that had been held by Serb rebels for two years.



It was crucial that the Croatian media constantly repeated that fact so the public could understand that the generals were not being prosecuted for leading the army during a defensive war, but for command responsibility over their soldiers, some of whom behaved like savages.



The Zagreb County Court verdict is not final and will be appealed, by both Norac and the prosecution. The trial, which lasted for almost a year, was closely watched by the European Union and human rights officials to see how Croatia was tackling the atrocities committed by some of its military leaders during the war of independence from Yugoslavia.



“That is why it was carefully chosen who would conduct the case,” independent analyst Davor Genero told IWPR.



He contrasted the conduct of the Norac-Ademi trial with that of Branimir Glavas, a powerful Croatian politician indicted for the killing of Serb civilians in the eastern town of Osijek in 1991.



The Glavas case is the biggest ever in Croatia: for the first time a politician is on trial for war crimes. But it is making a slow progress, and in the courtroom it often seems as if Glavas – not Judge Zeljko Horvatovic - is running the show.



Glavas’s supporters dogged the investigation with protests, but the Norac-Ademi trial took place without demonstrations of any kind and the public seemed completely unmoved by news of Norac’s guilty verdict.



This was partially due to the defence teams’ tactics. Each tried to shift the blame from their client onto the other. War veterans were amazed to see former war comrades turning on each other, firing insults.



“Who should we support now?” one veteran asked.



War veterans’ associations did issue written statements and a group of them held a press conference expressing their dissatisfaction with the decision to prosecute army commanders and calling - naively – for the government to change Norac’s verdict.



And that was it.



“What can we do?” said one veterans’ association leader when asked why no other action was taken. “It was different before … We [veterans] were respected and everybody paid attention to what we were doing and we had public [backing].”



Veterans are now also low on political support because the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party that was their greatest backer in opposition now runs the government and pays greater heed to its international obligations.



When Norac was indicted in 2001 and sentenced two years later to 12 years in prison for other war crimes, huge protests took place in all the major cities in Croatia. In Split at a gathering of some 100,000 people, one of the main speakers was Ivo Sanader – now prime minister.



At the time, he was shouting, “We won’t give up our generals.”



However, after he became prime minister, the Croatian generals were transferred to the Hague.



When Norac’s sentence was announced, members of HDZ only made comments about how well the judiciary was functioning.



“We have provided support to the Croatian judicial system. It has proved a capable system that can pass judgements on the most complicated issues,” said the government’s vice-president, Jadranka Kosor.



Croatian generals and sources close to the army mostly did not want to comment on the verdict.



Although politicians are still manipulating war crimes trials and trying to score political points, the Norac-Ademi case did demonstrate that democratic processes are improving in Croatia and it helped change public opinion more than any trial at the Hague tribunal.



The trial revealed the existence of a parallel chain of command, a group of privileged people who were above the law during and after the war, while ordinary citizens were sacrificed for the “national interest”.



The muted public reaction has created an environment in which the local judiciary can now prosecute other war crimes suspects who so far have been protected by widespread anger at the huge scale of Serb crimes that have gone unpunished.



Also, Croatian state prosecutors can now bring to trial those who played a direct role in the crimes committed during the Medak Pocket operation.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist.



The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.