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

Guilty Sentences for Six Bosnian Croat Leaders

Crimes were “not random acts of a few unruly soldiers”, but deliberate tactics to carve out Croat statelet from Bosnia, judges say.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusi in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusi in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

Six Bosnian Croat political and military leaders were convicted this week of a range of crimes against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) that included murder, rape, deportation and wanton destruction.

Jadranko Prlic, the top political figure in Herceg-Bosna, a self-declared Croat entity in Bosnia, was convicted of the unlawful deportation, transfer and detention of civilians, inhuman treatment, persecution, rape, sexual assault, plunder, forced labour, and the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”. In addition, Prlic was found guilty of carrying out unlawful attacks on civilians and of inflicting terror and cruel treatment on them.

Prlic was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with credit for time he has served since he surrendered to the tribunal in 2004.

Prlic and his five co-defendants – Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic – were all found to have been part of a joint criminal enterprise that had as its ultimate goal the establishment of a Croat entity, Herceg-Bosna. The aim was that this entity would either become part of Croatia if the Bosnian state fell apart, or would be “an independent state within [Bosnia] with direct ties to Croatia”.

Reading out the verdict in open court on May 29, presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said, “The chamber finds that the many crimes committed by [Bosnian Croat] forces against the Muslims between January 1993 and April 1994 followed, for the most part, a clear pattern of conduct.

“In the majority of cases, these crimes committed were not random acts of a few unruly soldiers. On the contrary, these crimes were the result of a plan drawn up by members of the joint criminal enterprise whose goal was to permanently remove the Muslim population from… Herceg-Bosna.”

Judge Antonetti said the conflict between the Bosnian government army and the Bosnian Croat military, known as the HVO, began in January 1993 after the latter ordered government forces based in the Gornji Vakuf municipality to subordinate themselves to it, which they refused to do.

The chamber found that it was Prlic who drafted the “ultimatum”.

The HVO then attacked Gornji Vakuf and several surrounding villages. By the spring of 1993, tensions between the two armed forces had spread to the municipalities of Mostar, Prozor, Stolac and Jablanica.

As the HVO continued to mount attacks, it set up an “entire network of detention centres for Muslims” which Prlic himself had the power to “open and close”, the judge continued.

“Detainees in all the detention centres were undernourished, and the sanitary conditions were appalling. Some did not even have access to toilets and had to relieve themselves in makeshift containers,” he said.

At these detention centres, HVO personnel burnt Bosniak detainees with cigarette ends and one prisoner was subjected to electric shocks until he blacked out. In other testimony cited by Judge Antonetti, a detained man “was forced to lick his own blood so that ‘the blood of a ‘balija’ does not remain on Croatian soil’.” The term “balija” is a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims .

On May 9, 1993, the HVO launched a major attack on Mostar, a picturesque town on the river Neretva in southern Bosnia. During this operation, Croat soldiers blew up a mosque, carried out mass arrests of Bosniaks in West Mostar, and separated the men from the women, children and elderly people. Men belonging to the Bosnian government army were detained and “savagely beaten”, and ten of them died as a result, the judge said.

Expulsions of Bosniaks from West Mostar continued for months, and the HVO used “extreme violence” to accomplish this.

“Many women, including one 16-year-old girl, were raped by HVO soldiers before being forced across the front line to East Mostar,” Judge Antonetti said.

Prlic “endorsed” the arrests and detentions, and “turned a blind eye to the increasingly violent ethnic cleansing operations in Mostar during the summer of 1993”, the judge continued.

The chamber found that East Mostar was besieged by the HVO between June 1993 and April 1994, and that the gunfire and shelling caused casualties among civilians and humanitarian workers.

During this time, the judge said, “The HVO impeded and at times even completely cut off the passage of humanitarian aid. The Muslim population was thus forced to live in extremely harsh conditions, deprived of food, water, electricity and adequate care.”

The chamber found that Prlic “personally contributed” to the blocking of aid. He also had “knowledge” of the crimes being committed by the HVO, of the “harsh” conditions in detention centres, and of the use of detainees as human shields. Judge Antonetti said that in doing so, Prlic “accepted and abetted the extremely precarious conditions and ill-treatment of the detainees”.

“By his failing to intervene when he had the ability to do so, and by remaining in power while being aware of the crimes committed, the chamber finds that the only reasonable inference it can draw is that Jadranko Prlic aided and accepted the commission of crimes against Muslims resulting from their systematic detention by the HVO,” the judge said.

The verdict also addressed the charge that the HVO destroyed Mostar’s famous 16th century Ottoman bridge that connected the two sides of the city.

“On November 8, 993, as part of the offensive, an HVO tank fired throughout the day at the Old Bridge until it was unusable and on the verge of collapse. The bridge then collapsed on the morning of November 9, 1993,” Judge Antonetti said.

The judge stated that the majority of the chamber– with himself dissenting – found that “although the bridge was used by the [Bosnian government army] and thus constituted a legitimate military target for the HVO, its destruction caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population of Mostar”.

Addressing the responsibility of the other defendants, Judge Antonetti said that Bruno Stojic, then the official in charge of defence in Herceg-Bosna, had authority over the majority of the HVO armed forces and military police. Stojic participated in the “implementation and campaign” to evict Muslims from West Mostar, and was aware of crimes being committed by the HVO in other operations, the judge said.

“Bruno Stojic did not make serious efforts to end the commission of crimes, although he had the authority and the duty to do so,” the judge continued. “He also attempted to deny his responsibility before representatives of international organisations. The chamber finds that the only inference it can draw is that Bruno Stojic accepted the commission of these crimes.”

Stojic was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with credit for time already served.

A third defendant, Slobodan Praljak, who between autumn 1992 and July 1993 was part of the Croatian defence ministry, was found by judges to have “directed the armed forces of the HVO”. Between July 24 and November 9, 1993, he had “effective command and control over all the components of the HVO armed forces”, the chamber found.

“[Praljak] participated in directing and planning HVO operations in Mostar municipality between July and early November 1993, including those on November 8, 1993 which resulted in the destruction of the Mostar bridge,” Judge Antonetti said.

Praljak failed to make any “serious effort” to stop crimes being carried out by the HVO, and instead “denied the crimes committed against the Muslims and facilitated the failure to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes”.

He also served as an intermediary between the Croatian government in Zagreb and the HVO, and in this role “transmitted orders, communiqués and instructions from the leaders of Croatia to those of Herceg-Bosna, and took part in obtaining the military support of Croatia on behalf of the armed forces of the HVO”.

Praljak was sentenced to 20 years in prison with credit for time served.

The chamber found that HVO army officer Milivoj Petkovic had “significant command over every component of the HVO armed forces”, first as chief of the military’s main staff and later as its deputy commander.

Petkovic planned and facilitated several military operations and was “fully aware” that HVO members had committed crimes and that they were continuing to do so as the conflict went on.

“By continuing to deploy [troops] in the theatre of operations, or at least, by failing to take any measures to prevent the commission of new crimes, [Petkovic] encouraged subsequent crimes to be committed,” the chamber concluded.

He too was sentenced to 20 years in prison with credit for time served.

Valentin Coric was head of administration for the HVO’s military police between June 1992 and November 10 1993 and was found to have “effective control” over all military police units.

He “played a key role in operating the network of HVO detention facilities” until November 1993 and “helped keep thousands of Muslims in detention in harsh conditions …[where] they were beaten, abused, and treated in a humiliating and degrading manner”.

He did nothing to prevent detainees from being sent to work at the front line, where they were often injured or killed, Judge Antonetti added.

Coric was sentenced to 16 years with credit for time served.

Defendant Berislav Pusic held several posts during the period covered by the indictment period. He oversaw the criminal investigations department of the HVO military police in 1993-94, and from July 1993 he also chaired a prisoner exchange commission. He also represented the HVO in dealings with the international community and senior officials in Croatia and Bosnia.

Pusic knew of the terrible conditions in various detention centers and of the abuse of prisoners, but “never took the necessary measures to improve these conditions or to cause the mistreatment to stop”, Judge Antonetti said.

In addition, the judge said, Pusic “always sought to avoid troubling questions from the representatives of international organisations or from his Muslim counterparts, and gave vague or even false information to these representatives, and to the press, thereby attempting to deny or to minimise the crimes committed by the members of the HVO against Muslims”.

Pusic was the only defendant in the case to be acquitted of counts in the indictment – he was found not guilty of rape, sexual assault, and the plunder of public or private property.

He was given a ten-year sentence, with credit for already time served.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.