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Croats Protest Indictment Changes

Relations between Croatia and the Hague have soured over a controversial proposal to broaden “Operation Storm” indictment.
By Goran Jungvirth

Relations between Zagreb and the Hague tribunal chilled this week after prosecutors asked the court to amend the indictment against Croatian generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac to include the names of two high-ranking army officers and an unspecific number of unnamed Croatian government and security officials.


Markac and Cermak are charged with atrocities against Serbs during the 1995 war in Croatia. They are also accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise to cleanse ethnic Serbs out of parts of Croatia.


Other members included Croat fugitive General Ante Gotovina, as well as late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and late defence minister Gojko Šušak.


The amended indictment adds two late chiefs of the Croatian General Staff, Janko Bobetko and Zvonimir Cervenko, as well as unnamed members of the Croatian government, defence ministry, internal affairs ministry, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union and local authorities. Although named as members of a criminal enterprise, they have not been indicted.


During Operation Storm and its aftermath, Croatian forces attacked and took control of Serb-occupied towns and villages in the Knin Krajina region. Cermak and Markac are accused - either alone or in concert with the others named on the indictment - of planning, ordering, committing and aiding and abetting the persecution of the Krajina Serbs. They deny all the charges.


Prosecutors submitted the expanded indictment for approval on May 6 after an order from judges telling them to clarify who exactly participated in the criminal enterprise.


Markac's lawyer, Goran Mikulicic, told IWPR that the new indictment “has made [the issue] even more unclear”. He said that redefining the joint criminal enterprise to include much of the state apparatus was absurd, though maintained that this would be easier to refute than the original version.


He accused chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte of bringing politics into court proceedings, adding, “The politicalisation of the case once again cannot be to the benefit of the defendants nor the Croatian … public nor the Hague tribunal.”


The news that top government and military leaders could be held criminally responsible for Operation Storm - described this week by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader as a magnificent military and police operation which liberated parts of Croatia - has caused shock and anger across the political and social spectrum.


A group of 33 politicians - including former prime ministers and cabinet members - joined with chiefs of staff of the armed forces, army generals, scientists and cultural and social figures to draft a protest to the European parliament and the United Nations Security Council.


The signatories, who included Miroslav Tudjman, son of the late president Franjo, accused the Hague prosecutor and the European Commission of “demeaning” behaviour towards Croatia and demanded they protect the Croatian people from historical fabrications, which turn war heroes into criminals.


Sanader echoed that call when speaking to reporters, saying that the tenth anniversary of Operation Storm would now be marked “even more strongly than we thought”.


“No one will do a revision of the fatherland war because we will not allow that,” he said, adding the accusations are in direct opposition to a 1994 UN declaration stating that a sovereign country that is occupied has the right to liberate itself.


Croatia’s justice ministry has also hit out against the broadened indictment, insisting the claims are “legally and politically unacceptable”, because they question the legitimacy of the armed operation aimed at “liberating occupied areas of Croatia”.


The ministry argued that the altered indictment runs contrary to the mandate of the tribunal, which was founded to try individuals accused of crimes against humanity.


In protest, the ministry warned it was considering intervening in the case under Article 74 of the tribunal’s regulations on procedures and evidence, which allows a state, organisation or person to address the court if judges feel their views are important.


Hague tribunal prosecution spokesperson Florence Hartmann denied the new indictment criminalises all those involved in Operation Storm, saying it simply provides more information on the offences committed. It is also only a proposal and has not yet been confirmed by judges.


When asked why people who have not been indicted have now been named, Hartmann said the tribunal’s mandate was never to charge every individual who committed crimes. Instead, it hopes that local judiciaries dealing with war crimes will launch their own investigations to deal with suspects not indicted by Hague prosecutors.


This controversy comes at a sensitive time for Croatia as it awaits the start of accession negotiations with the European Union, scheduled for June this year. Previous negotiations were cancelled in March over the contentious issue of Gotovina, who though indicted has still not been handed over to the tribunal.


Zagreb university law school professor and international law expert Ivo Josipovic believes the current conflict between Croatia and the tribunal could affect the country’s EU timetable.


“The emotional debate on problems with the Hague will increase the number of Eurosceptics and strengthen somewhat the rightist political options,” Josipovic said.


“It is also possible that there will be a tensing of relations on the political scene which means stronger polarisation. The HDZ [the leading party in the country] will be tempted to succumb to the euphoria and join in the anti-Hague movement which could be devastating to Croatia and its ambitions to start negotiations soon.”


The Croatian parliament has announced that Sanader will address its members on May 18 to update them on the latest developments. Josipovic expects the address to be critical of the amended indictment. But he also thinks the prime minister would try to calm down the atmosphere in the country and is likely to continue cooperating with The Hague court.


“We often hear that Croatia should have some kind of strategy towards The Hague, meaning naively that this strategy would avoid indictments or at least make them acceptable to the domestic public,” he said.


“I think those are illusions and that those who think that lobbying can stop the Hague do not live in reality. The only and best strategy for Croatia is to serve the defence and prosecution with evidence which will lead to the full truth.”


Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR contributor in Zagreb.


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