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

Gotovina Defence Denies Looting of Civilian Property

They try to show that Croatian forces merely confiscated goods from government and military facilities.
By Goran Jungvirth
The defence team for a Croatian general on trial for war crimes sought this week to rubbish prosecution claims that troops under his command looted the homes of Serb civilians.

Prosecution witness Murray Dawes, a former civilian clerk at the United Nations mission, told the Hague trial of Ante Gotovina that he had seen “systematic and organised” looting in the town of Knin, capital of the Serb rebel Krajina region, which was bombarded by the Croatian army in 1995.

“Looting on [August 6, 1995] in Knin seemed to be organised and systematic because the HV [Croatian army] soldiers separated valuable items…so they could load them later into trucks,” said Dawes.

On August 6, Dawes also visited the villages Vrbnik and Kistanje, which are close to Knin, where he said he saw HV soldiers actively looting houses and then driving away stolen goods in vehicles with HV markings on their license plates.

All houses in Kistanje were destroyed, he said, except those which had been marked as being Croatian.

On his way back to Knin, he said he saw around 15 to 25 corpses on the ground outside the village of Srb, which lies close to Knin. Among the dead were some women, he added.

During his testimony, the witness said that on his visits to Vrbnik and Kistanje he remained in the car the entire time.

Defence lawyer Greg Kehoe suggested that he could not say if the looting he witnessed in the villages was carried out by HV soldiers, because he didn’t leave his car to investigate.

"Did you exit the car when you came across plunder and try to talk with those people, so you could determine what it was about?” asked Kehoe.

The witness admitted he had just sat in the car and watched what was happening.

According to the prosecution, Gotovina, along with his co-accused in the trial, fellow generals Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, systematically cleared Krajina of ethnic Serbs during Operation Storm, which he commanded and which regained control of the region.

The prosecution alleges that the Croatian army shelled the area excessively to force the civilian population to flee.

During cross-examination, Dawes admitted that Knin looked “much better” than he had expected it to look after two days of shelling on August 4 to 5, 1995.

The witness said that during Operation Storm, the centre of the town wasn’t targeted, unlike the suburbs where he was lightly wounded in his right arm in August, near the European community observers’ headquarters. When Kehoe asked him if the shot had been fired by Croat troops, Dawes admitted he could not be sure.

In an effort to challenge Dawes’ allegations that Croatian forces looted private property, Gotovina’s defence counsel suggested that the goods were taken from facilities used by the army and rebel government of the breakaway region, rather than from residential buildings.

Dawes, however, stuck to his claim that he had witnessed soldiers carry personal possessions both from people’s homes, and from government buildings.

Kehoe pointed out that Serb army personnel might have lived in some of the houses in Knin where Dawes said he saw looting take place. However, the witness replied that he did not know about this, although he knew that UN staff lived in some of the buildings in question.

Kehoe exhibited several documents drafted by Croatian army units in August 1995 with lists of goods confiscated in Knin.

At this point, he asked Dawes if he had seen the military police stop soldiers and civilians at check-points and take stolen items from them. The witness replied, “They did stop them, but they didn't take anything [from them].”

Kehoe also questioned if the witness had in fact visited the villages of Vrbnik and Kistanje at all.

He pointed out that Dawes had drawn on a map to show the route he had taken that day, and had marked it to show that he had crossed the river at a point with no bridge. This prompted Dawes to admit he had not been very precise when he marked the route.

Lawyers for the other two generals did not cross-examine the witness.

The trial continues next week.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.

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