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Ex-Military Police Chief Blames Gotovina for Crimes

He argued his men were unable to prevent soldiers’ misdemeanours without Croatian army support.
By Katharina Goetze
A former commander of the Croatian military police claimed this week that General Ante Gotovina was responsible for its failure to stop looting and arson during 1995 Operation Storm.

Mate Lausic – who commanded the military police during the army’s operation to regain control over Serb-held territories in the Krajina region of Croatia – told the Hague tribunal that his men could not operate effectively because of a lack of support from the main command of the Croatian army, HV.

He said that the military police were short-staffed and under-resourced, and that these problems were compounded by a lack of discipline throughout in the army.

“Even if we [the military police] had had more men in the field and even with much more equipment and education of our staff, we could not have been efficient if the line of command of the HV was dysfunctional,” he said.

“And we had daily examples of that, of conduct that went against the rules of service in the armed forces.”

Lausic was testifying in the trial of Gotovina, the commander of the Croatian army’s Split military district during Operation Storm.

According to the indictment, about 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes in Krajina as a result of this offensive.

Gotovina is charged, along with two other senior generals, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, with orchestrating the permanent removal of Serbs from Croatia between July and September 1995.

The indictment accuses the three men of presiding over “deportation and forcible transfer, destruction and burning of Serb homes and businesses, plunder and looting of public or private Serb property; murder [and] other inhumane acts”.

While prosecutors are not challenging Croatia’s right to reintegrate the Krajina within its borders, they condemn the methods used which they say left behind a “scarred wasteland of destroyed villages and homes”.

Prosecutors have tried to show that military police units, which could have been used to punish and prevent crimes committed by Croatian troops, were controlled by Gotovina as commander of the military district.

Defence lawyers are adamant, however, that military police officers were under Lausic’s command during and after Operation Storm.

This week, Lausic argued that that there would have been far fewer crimes committed against civilians had discipline been enforced throughout the army.

He illustrated this with an example, saying that if those soldiers who used military vehicles to steal goods from Serb houses had been prevented from taking the vehicles in the first place, the plundering wouldn’t have happened.

However, Lausic added that it was important to understand the problems facing Croatian army officers in the area at the time. He said that many soldiers were reservists and displaced persons themselves, and were very difficult to control.

“One has to comprehend the priorities of these commanders, who were at the same time, displaced persons and did not have the clout to keep their men under their command, and in many cases, lost the power over their men because [they] were in turn displaced persons whose homes had been burnt,” he told judges.

“It was very difficult for them.”

He was told by the court at the start of his testimony this week that he had the right not to answer a question if he feared he might incriminate himself.

Lausic explained during his testimony that he had raised concerns with senior Croatian defence officials about increasing reports of looting and arson by the HV.

An entry from Lausic’s diary describing a meeting at the ministry of defence on August 2, 1995, was read out in court.

“Military police must be more energetic in their actions and must prevent all offences. Military district commanders must pass on to other commanders the prohibition of any uncontrolled conduct, including torching and looting. We must prevent having to take the heroes of the homeland war to court,” said the entry.

Records of a meeting held the next day showed that Lausic had “pointed out that [army] commanders were warned that they would be personally responsible for the discipline of their subordinates”.

It went on to say that if the army officers did not ensure discipline within their ranks then this would result in military policemen being unable to keep their men in check.

Prosecutor Alan Tieger produced as evidence a report that Lausic had sent on August 9, 1995, to then president Franjo Tudjman and defence minister Gojko Susak and other senior officials regarding the use of military police during Operation Storm.

In this, Lausic proposed that “appropriate actions are taken along the line of command to prevent plunder, the burning of buildings and similar acts that harm the reputation of the HV”.

He also stated that great problems had emerged because army commanders were failing to exert influence over the large number of HV troops in the area, “so that there are attempts at random plunder and burning buildings”.

This week, Lausic explained to the court that in notifying his seniors of these problems, he had intended to make them aware of the limitations of the military police, and also to transfer responsibility for preventing and punishing the crimes to them.

“I wanted to point out that there was a need to see measures put in place along the lines of command which would prevent the commission of crimes and unsociable behaviour,” he said.

The cross-examination of Lausic by the defence is expected to continue until early next week.

Katharina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in London.

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