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Judges Decide Croatian Generals Have Case to Answer

The defence teams’ call for acquittal on all charges at midpoint of trial is dismissed.
By Simon Jennings
Judges in the trial of former Croatian general Ante Gotovina and his two co-defendants have dismissed the request by all three defence teams to acquit their clients of all charges – including murder, deportation and cruel treatment of Serb civilians – at the halfway stage of proceedings.

Judges concluded that prosecutors had presented evidence that could convict Gotovina, along with two other former generals, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, of orchestrating the permanent removal of Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia between July and September 1995.

The prosecution’s evidence suggested “there was an attack and it was directed against the civilian population of the southern portion of Krajina”, said presiding judge Alphons Orie, while delivering the judges’ decision on April 3.

The prosecution alleges that Croatian forces bombarded towns across the Krajina region as part of a joint criminal plan conducted by the defendants, before embarking on a campaign across 16 municipalities, which included the killing of civilians, the burning of houses and looting of property in a bid to drive Serbs out of the area and prevent their return.

“There is sufficient evidence of a common objective aimed at the permanent removal of Serbs from Krajina by force or threat of force, persecution, forced transfer and deportation, as well as appropriation and destruction of property,” Judge Orie told the court.

He added that the prosecution had also presented enough evidence to show that the three defendants could also be convicted of the murder and cruel treatment of Krajina Serb civilians in the aftermath of the attack known as Operation Storm.

Under tribunal rules, the defence may seek an acquittal from the judges at the midpoint of a trial on any charges that it deems the prosecution has not proved during the presentation of its evidence.

However, Judge Orie cited evidence presented by prosecutors covering all the counts listed in the indictment, concluding that it could warrant a conviction at the end of the trial.

“All three accused have a case to answer on all nine counts of the indictment,” said Judge Orie.

To support the judges’ findings, Judge Orie recounted evidence presented by a number of prosecution witnesses corroborating the prosecution’s allegations about crimes in the Krajina during the summer of 1995.

He recounted the testimony of one witness who had testified that on August 6, 1995, in Knin municipality, Croatian soldiers had thrown his disabled father into a burning workshop and locked the door.

Addressing the charges of cruel treatment inflicted on Serb civilians, the judge recalled the statements of a 73-year-old woman who said that Croatian soldiers came to her village in August 1995.

After smashing her belongings and shooting at her house, the soldiers called her a “Chetnik whore” and forced her to strip to her underwear, she said. “Chetnik” was a term commonly used by Croats and Bosniaks during the Balkan wars to refer to Serbian ultra-nationalists.

Turning to the allegations of murder, Judge Orie said the evidence given in relation to killings of Serb civilians by Croat troops in the town of Grubori in August 1995 suggested “the victims were not actively participating in hostilities at the time the offences were committed and that the murders were closely related to the armed conflict”, making the defendants criminally liable.

Addressing the evidence for the criminal liability of each defendant, Judge Orie referred to evidence suggesting that they had planned the removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina, in particular, the minutes of a meeting at Brijuni on July 31, 1995, attended by the-then Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, Gotovina and Markac.

“During the meetings, the participants discussed, among other things, that civilians should be leaving the area as part of the armed operation,” said Judge Orie, quoting statements made by both Tudjman and Gotovina.

“If we continue this pressure, probably for some time to come, there won’t be so many civilians,” the judge cited Gotovina as saying. The judge noted that it had been agreed at the meeting that information should be spread around the area that Serb civilians were already leaving to encourage others to follow.

Concerning the actual crimes committed on the ground, Judge Orie said that judges had “received evidence of Mr Gotovina’s awareness of crimes committed by men under his command during and following Operation Storm”.

He referred to evidence which showed that although Gotovina was informed about crimes being committed by his men and the human rights abuses taking place, he had claimed that he did not think such behaviour was against Croatian state policy.

“The evidence heard allows for the conclusion that Mr Gotovina had the power and ability to discipline soldiers under his command,” explained Judge Orie, but that the evidence suggested that Gotovina “primarily used his power for disciplining men for violations or crimes that would jeopardise combat operations, rather than for crimes against a civilian population, such as looting and burning”.

The evidence heard so far suggested that Markac was also guilty of “attempting to obscure crimes committed by the Special Police” under his command, said Judge Orie.

The judges ruled this week that there was evidence that could lead to the conviction of Cermak based on the fact that he was informed about crimes in and around the town of Knin where he served, yet did nothing.

“There is evidence that Mr Cermak either denied that members of Croatian forces had committed crimes, attempted to downplay these crimes or promised that investigations would take place. But such investigations were either not carried out or were not conducted until much later,” said Judge Orie.

He said that judges had also received documentary evidence that suggested Cermak was “one of the key persons” organising the removal of Serbs to Serbia on a convoy of 35 buses on September 16 and 17, 1995.

Judges concluded that the evidence suggested that Cermak, along with Gotovina and Markac, had participated in the joint criminal plan to drive Serbs out of the Krajina.

Judges will now hear the defence cases of all three defendants. Proceedings are scheduled to begin again on May 28.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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