Gotovina Lawyer Defends 1995 Shelling of Towns

Appeals bench hears that attacks came after legitimate military order was issued.

Gotovina Lawyer Defends 1995 Shelling of Towns

Appeals bench hears that attacks came after legitimate military order was issued.

Friday, 18 May, 2012

The shelling of Knin and other Croatian towns during a 1995 military operation was conducted following a “legitimate military order” and there is no proof that anyone died in the attacks, a lawyer for former Croatian army general Ante Gotovina said during an appeal hearing this week.

Gotovina was convicted in April 2011 of ordering unlawful and indiscriminate attacks on Serb civilians during the Operation Storm offensive, launched on August 4, 1995, to retake Croatia’s Serb-controlled Krajina region.

He was also found responsible for the deportation of at least 20,000 Serb civilians from Krajina, as well as for murder, persecution and cruel treatment of Serb civilians. In addition, he was convicted on counts of plunder and wanton destruction.

The only count of which he was acquitted – out of nine in total – was one of forcible population transfer.

Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years in prison, with credit for time already served.

One of Gotovina’s co-accused, former special police commander Mladen Markac, was also convicted on eight out of nine counts in the joint indictment. Markac was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with credit for time served.

Both Markac and Gotovina were found to have been part of a joint criminal enterprise with other high ranking Croatian military and political officials. The enterprise’s common objective was the “permanent removal of the Serb civilian population from the Krajina by force or threat of force,” the trial verdict stated.

At the May 14 appeal hearing for both men, Gotovina’s lawyer Luka Misetic argued that “there is no proof that a single person was injured or killed during the shelling. There are not even unconfirmed rumours that this was the case.”

The defence argues that the trial judgement rests on an incorrect finding that artillery projectiles falling more than 200 metres away from designated military targets constituted illegitimate attacks.

“That way, it was decided that the attack on the cities of Knin – as well as Benkovac, Gracac and Obrovac – was illegitimate, and that the execution of this illegitimate attack was [carried out as a result of] a joint criminal enterprise,” Misetic said.

He said the 200-metre limit had been “simply invented by the trial chamber,” but that even if it was accepted, it might only apply to five per cent of the 1,200 shells fired during the military operation.

“It has never been proven by the prosecution that the five per cent in question were truly related to attacks on civilian objects actually used for civilian purposes,” he said.

Prosecuting lawyer Matthew Cross responded that the “five per cent quota” had been misunderstood. A precise impact spot could be determined “for about ten per cent of the artillery projectiles and… half of these had met civilian areas,” he said.

“Frankly speaking, it isn't quite clear as to why it would have been necessary to fire such a high number of artillery projectiles – 900 a day – into a city which was almost devoid of soldiers,” Cross added.

There were reports of victims in Knin, but it was unnecessary to go deeper into detail on these because the prosecution had attempted to prove an intent to persecute civilians, not to kill them, Cross added.

“Most importantly,” Cross said, the “shelling of Knin was just one of the elements of the joint criminal enterprise, and the whole operation must be seen in its entirety in order to understand the judgment and its effects.”

His colleague, prosecuting lawyer Douglas Stringer, said the court’s verdict was based on a qualified assessment and was “not invented”.

He said the 200-metre limit had been “determined on the basis of a report from a military expert”. The expert’s report was not “the sole proof that the attacks were illegitimate,” he continued; there were also reports from the Croatian army “which were proof of non-selective shelling of cities mentioned in the verdict”.

Markac’s defence team said at the outset that it “fully supports the arguments presented by the defence of General Gotovina” and that there were “additional arguments which had to be presented against the trial chamber verdict”.

Markac’s lawyer, John Jones, said it was “necessary to understand that without illegitimate shelling, there could also not possibly be a joint criminal enterprise”.

“This was the main thread in a jumper made of wool, and just like the jumper falls apart when the main thread is taken out, the joint criminal enterprise will fall apart when it is proven that there was no illegitimate shelling,” Jones said. “And once there is no joint criminal enterprise, there could be no participation by Mladen Markac,” he added.

During their arguments, the prosecution said Markac had taken part in a July 31, 1995 meeting in Brioni, “where the alleged decision on the expulsion of the Serb civilians was taken”.

Prosecuting lawyer Ingrid Elliott said it was “Markac personally who gave the order to treat the entire city of Gracac as a military target, which was a key step in the achievement of the goals of the joint criminal enterprise”.

“In addition, it can't be forgotten that both the indictment and the verdict hold Markac responsible not just for ordering the attack on the village of Grubori, but also for trying to conceal it,” Elliott said.

Later, the defendants addressed the appeals bench directly. Gotovina, speaking in French, said that while he regretted deeply the war losses, he “could not be responsible in any way for the omissions and mistakes of others”.

“It was wrong for me to keep hiding from justice for such a long time, but I never wanted anyone to be killed simply because he was a Serb,” said Gotovina, who was arrested in Spain in December 2005, more than four years after the indictment against him was issued.

Gotovina told the bench that he was “just an honest officer in a really bad time and grave circumstances”.

For his part, Markac told the bench that he found the accusations “strange” and that he was not “a member of anything”, let alone of “a criminal association”.

He also said he had “absolutely no findings about anything wrong having been done by any members” of his special operations unit.

“As a human being, as a humanist,” Markac said, “I feel with the victims and feel for their losses, but I know and justice knows that I am not guilty, and therefore I expect a just and fair verdict.”

As the hearing closed, presiding Judge Theodore Meron said an appeals verdict would be reached “in due time”.

Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.

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