Herceg-Bosna Trial Gets Under Way

Prosecutors open trial against six Bosnian Croats charged with ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

Herceg-Bosna Trial Gets Under Way

Prosecutors open trial against six Bosnian Croats charged with ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

Prosecutors this week set in motion what promises to be one of the most complex trials yet to take place at the Hague tribunal, as they opened their case against six Croats charged with ethnic cleansing of Muslims during the war in Bosnia.

Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic all held senior positions in the political and military structures of Herceg-Bosna, an area whose Croat leaders declared its a distinct “community” within Bosnia in 1991 and claimed republic status two years later.

The six are accused of playing key roles in a broad effort to cleanse Herceg-Bosna of its non-Croat populations, with the long-term goal of joining it to a planned “Greater Croatia”.

They each face 26 charges of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva conventions and violations of the laws or customs of war for crimes including deportations, murders, rapes and persecution.

In the past, only one trial before the tribunal has involved so many defendants. In that instance, however, the charges all related to an attack on a single village.

In his opening statement on April 26, prosecutor Kenneth Scott outlined the specific roles played by the accused in the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, the body responsible for political and military affairs within Herceg-Bosna.

During the war, Prlic was active at the highest levels of the HVO hierarchy. Prosecutors claim he was second only in influence to top Bosnian Croat official Mate Boban, and that he “effectively eclipsed” even Boban in late 1993.

Stojic was head of the HVO’s defence ministry until late 1993, when he allegedly took up a position presiding over the production and sale of military equipment. Praljak and Petkovic both spent periods commanding the HVO’s military wing. Finally, Coric was a police chief in Herceg-Bosna and later its interior minister.

Scott argued that the territorial ambitions of the Herceg-Bosna authorities during the Bosnian war coincided roughly with the borders of the Croatian Banovina, a province that existed between 1939 and 1941 and encompassed much of modern-day Croatia and parts of Bosnia and Serbia.

The territory coveted by the HVO included areas, he said, where Croats were not the absolute majority, as well as some where they were not even the largest single ethnic group.

In an effort to establish Croat hegemony, especially in areas such as these, the HVO embarked on a campaign which followed a discernible pattern, Scott said. Municipalities fell to HVO control “almost like a series of dominos” and efforts were made to “Croatise” Herceg-Bosna.

Bosnian Muslims were marginalised politically, driven out of business and systematically detained en masse and forced from their homes. At the same time, he said, Croats were encouraged to move into Herceg-Bosna from elsewhere in Bosnia.

Scott also spent some time arguing that the state of Croatia was an influential actor behind the scenes. He read out a series of quotes from the then Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, that suggested he was backing the land-grab in Herceg-Bosna and even condoned the policy of ethnic cleansing.

At the same time, Scott emphasised that it was not Croatia as a state, the Croatian people or even the HVO that was on trial, but the six individuals facing him across the courtroom.

On the second day of the trial, on April 27, Praljak took up his right to offer an opening statement of his own. He was the only one of the six accused to do so.

A man of imposing stature and impressive facial hair – which has earned him the nickname The Beard – the famously eccentric Praljak has qualifications in philosophy, sociology and electrical engineering, and before the war worked in television, film and the theatre.

His opening speech, which he had promised would be “exciting”, did not disappoint.

Following a short treatise on the nature of truth, he warned the judges of the risks involved in “using a thousand broken mirrors, extracts out of context” to try to build up a picture that inevitably oversimplifies a situation as extreme as war.

Beginning with the subjugation of Croatia by the Venetians in the 12th century, he then used a multimedia presentation including animated maps to talk the chamber through several centuries of oppression suffered by Croats, right up to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early Nineties.

He argued that Croatian nationalism had only ever existed as a reaction to oppression and had always dissolved as soon as such pressures eased off. And he insisted that restoring the so-called Croatian Banovina could never have been the ambition of the Croat leadership of the Nineties, since the Second World War entity excluded territories held dear by Croats.

Praljak insisted that Croatia and the Bosnian Croats had not been aggressors in the early Nineties. In defence of this position, he argued that Croatia had given enormous assistance to Bosnian Muslims, including shipping armaments and humanitarian aid, treating wounded Muslim soldiers and providing Bosnia with electricity.

He promised to provide the court with thousands of documents to show that he was speaking the truth.

Praljak did acknowledge that “evil” was committed by certain Croats during the war in Bosnia. But he insisted that these had been individual acts of revenge, and that the authorities had done everything in their power - under extremely difficult circumstances - to prevent such instances.

He pointed to the looting that following Hurricane Katrina in the United States, the recent riots in France, crimes committed in Iraq, and rapes of German women by Allied troops in the Second World War. If powerful countries are unable to prevent such criminal behaviour, he demanded to know what chance the Bosnian Croat leadership had amid the chaos of the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Praljak also insisted that his own personal role during the war years had been honourable. In support of this claim, he played a video in court which combined contemporary footage with dramatisations in which actors helped to recreate the atmosphere and conditions which prevailed at the time.

He had always held back from boasting about his virtuous behaviour during the early Nineties, he said, because he had not considered it “decent” to do so.

“But now that I am accused I will remove this ban from myself,” Praljak went on, adding, “Nobody else in Europe in my shoes could have done more than I did.”

Judges ruled this week that prosecutors will have 400 hours to present their evidence, not including time taken up by procedural matters and cross-examination of witnesses by the defence. In the light of this limit, the prosecution case – thought likely to include nearly 200 witnesses – is expected to finish within a year.

The judges have so far declined to place a strict limit on the amount of time the six defence teams are allowed for cross-examination. But so far they have based their calculations on the defence lawyers sharing the same amount of time that the prosecution takes to question any given witness. The defence teams had previously asked to be granted this amount of time each.

The prosecution will call its first witness on May 2.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.
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