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

Croatian Generals Go on Trial in Zagreb

A landmark trial seen as a litmus test of Croatia’s ability to handle war crimes cases gets underway.
By Caroline Tosh
Two years after their case was transferred to Croatia, the trial of two Croatian generals indicted for crimes committed in September 1993, Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac, finally started this week in Zagreb.



This was the first case to be referred to Croatia by the Hague tribunal as part of its completion strategy to finish all first-instance trials by 2008.



On June 18, Ademi and Norac came to the Zagreb County Court, under tight security, to face charges relating to an attack on Serb civilians in Operation Medak Pocket, which took place south of the city of Gospic in central Croatia during its 1991-1995 war of independence.



Ademi and Norac both plead not guilty to charges including persecutions, murder, plunder of property; and wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages allegedly committed in a week-long attack in September 1993.



At the time relevant to the indictment, Ademi was acting commander of the Gospic operational zone, and Norac was commander of the 9th Guards Motorised Brigade of the Croatian army.



Then, the so-called Medak Pocket fell under the territory of the Serbian Autonomous District, SAO Krajina, a self-proclaimed entity established by rebel Serbs following the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.



According to the indictment, the Croatian offensive from September 9 to 17 obliterated the region, forcing some 400 Serb civilians to flee for good.



It says that forces under the generals’ control killed 29 civilians, including women and the elderly, as well as at least five prisoners of war during and after the operation near Gospic.



Local Serbs were shot and stabbed, some had their fingers cut off, others were tied to cars and dragged along the road. One woman was allegedly set alight and mocked by Croatian forces as she burned to death.



The trial has been widely anticipated as a litmus test of how capable a reformed Croatian judiciary is of prosecuting crimes of such gravity.



As a weak judicial system has been a barrier to Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2009, this trial is an opportunity to demonstrate that legal reforms have been effective.



This week, proceedings began with a clash between the defence teams of the co-accused, said reports.



The Croatian news agency Hina reported on June 19 that the defence counsel for Norac expressed concern that the principal defender Rahim Ademi Ademi might employ a cut-throat defence and shift responsibility to Norac.



The report said that Norac's attorney Zeljko Olujic asked the prosecution to say if it accepted as Ademi’s defence a pre-trial statement from the Hague tribunal from July 2003, in which Ademi apparently accused Norac.



According to Hina, Prosecutor Antun Kvakan said, "General Ademi's pre-trial statement from 2003 is not a separate piece of evidence and was included in the file because it also includes elements of defence presented at the time to ICTY investigators by General Norac, who at the time was already a suspect.”



A report by the AFP news agency on June 20 said that the Zagreb court ruled against using evidence from the Serbian NGO Veritas in the trial.



The Belgrade-based organisation was formed in late 1993 by citizens of SAO Krajina to gather evidence from - and provide legal assistance - to Serb refugees who fled Croatia during the war.



Commenting on the decision to exclude the evidence, Ademi’s defence lawyer Jadranka Slokovic was reportedly pleased the Veritas documents were not accepted.



She added that the documents in question were “disputable” with the methodology and means of collecting evidence impossible to check.



The Ademi-Norac case was transferred from The Hague to Zagreb in 2005, and is being held at one of four special war crimes courts in the country.



Norac is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence in Croatia, convicted in 2003 for his role in killing some 50 Serb civilians in a separate incident in Gospic in late 1991.



The conviction of Norac, who is still held up as a war hero by many, sparked mass demonstrations in Croatia, as tens of thousands of his supporters came out in protest at the verdict.



Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in London.