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Key Croatian Suspect Dies

Bobetko case threatened to cause major rift between Zagreb and The Hague
By Drago Hedl

Croatia’s biggest war crimes controversy ended suddenly at five minutes to midday on April 29, with the death of leading Hague suspect Janko Bobetko, aged 84.


Zagreb’s refusal to hand over its former army commander to the tribunal caused its most serious split with the war crimes court since the end of the Tudjman era.


Bobetko was charged last September with being in charge of the first serious offensive of the war – the attack on the Serb-held Medak pocket in 1993.


The attack was successful - Croat forces swept into the pocket, pushing out Serb units and taking control - but it also saw gruesome atrocities, with civilians and even livestock butchered and more than 100 buildings burned.


Croatia’s premier Ivica Racan, on an official visit to Hungary, sent a letter of condolence to Bobetko's family.


"We will cherish the memory of Janko Bobetko as a man (who had a) rich political and military career,” said the letter. “An anti-fascist fighter, participant in the Croatian Spring (nationalist movement in Croatia in 1971, suppressed by Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito), army general, chief of staff of the armed forces and (parliamentary) deputy.”


At a press conference held immediately on his arrival in Zagreb, Racan said he was "deeply upset by the news of Bobetko's death". He went on to say he had a proper and fair relationship with him. "We respected each other even when we disagreed politically," said Croatian premier.


Ivo Sanader, leader of Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the former ruling party under Tudjman, said, “ He was a symbol, the legend of the Homeland War, the commander leading the defenders to the certain victory. Bobetko was one of those upright pillars which every nation needs, one of the role models all of us looked up to."


He did not mention The Hague indictment against the general. When journalists brought up the issue, he replied, "So what?"


The Medak crime happened right under the noses of Canadian peacekeepers based nearby - who took careful notes of what they saw.


Later these notes were passed to investigators from the UN Commission of Experts, which produced the first body of evidence for the tribunal.


In 2002, Hague prosecutors indicted Bobetko for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war – blaming him as the man ultimately responsible for violations committed by Croat units at Medak.


The indictment makes grim reading. “At least 100 Serbs, including 29 Serb civilians, were unlawfully killed and others sustained serious injury,” it said.


It says Croatian forces took one woman, Boja Vujnovic, and set her on fire, laughing and joking as she burned to death.


Other atrocities including “shooting, stabbing, cutting off of fingers, severe beatings, burning with cigarettes, jumping on bodies, tying bodies to a car and dragging them along the road.”


Although Bobetko was not present, he was accused by Hague prosecutors of being responsible, both for the conduct of the operation and for failing to insure an investigation of the atrocities afterwards.


The charges sent shockwaves across Croatia because many considered the general a national hero.


Bobetko had been a commander of Tito’s communist partisans, alongside Croatia’s former president, Franjo Tudjman. He became Yugoslav army general at 35, and retired in 1971. He subsequently turned dissident advocating the cause of the Croatian nationalist movement whose ambitions were the creation of an independent state.


After the first multi-party elections in 1990, Bobetko joined the Croatian People's Party. When Tudjman led Croatia to independence in 1991, he encouraged his former comrade to return to the military. Bobetko moved up the ranks to become the army’s chief of staff.


The government appealed last year against the indictment. It was heard by The Hague – but rejected.


Despite losing its appeal, Croatia still refused to hand him over, saying the general was sick. Hague prosecutors insisted that they do so, and an arrest warrant was issued against the former general for failing to come to tribunal voluntarily. Still Croatia refused to act. Finally, Hague medical experts went to Zagreb this year, and reported that the general was indeed ill.


Last month, a compromise was reached: the war crimes court announced it would withdraw its arrest warrant, but only on condition that the Zagreb authorities finally deliver the indictment to the general, who was by then in hospital.


After the Easter holiday, Bobetko returned to the Dubrava clinic, only to leave again on April 26, in spite of his doctors’ warnings that he would not be able to receive proper medical treatment at home.


Bobetko died on April 29, with his family in attendance, at his luxurious villa in the prestigious Zagreb suburb of Tuskanac. "His heart failed and he stopped breathing," said doctor Mijo Bergovec, the head of his personal medical team.


Almost only one hour after Bobetko died, generals Kresimir Cosic, Ljubo Cesic Rojs and Ivan Basarac appeared among the first mourners on his doorstep.


Soon afterwards came Drazen Budisa, the Liberal Party president and Racan’s most important ally in the 2000 general elections.


Later, Budisa walked out of Racan’s government because he was opposed to cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal. "The fact that Bobetko died as a war crimes indictee is both sad and tragic," he said.


"Now that he is dead, I would rather not comment on what Bobetko was charged with,” said Mesic. “My assumption is always that a man is innocent until proven guilty, and this must be our attitude to General Bobetko."


Immediately after Bobetko's death, his family announced he would be buried in his home town of Sisak and that his last wish was that "his favourite general" Mirko Norac attend his funeral.


Norac was recently sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment on charges of war crimes committed in the Croatian town of Gospic in 1991.


When journalists asked Racan whether Bobetko's dying wish would be honoured, the prime minister replied that it was the judiciary, not the government, that could decide on this matter. "As far as I am concerned, we should see what can be done, but on an occasion like this, one should not insist on rigid formalities," he went on to say.


Zagreb, however, is concerned that the presence of Norac at the funeral might provoke a large gathering of nationalist hard liners.


Drago Hedl is an IWPR contributor based in Osijek. Chris Stephen is IWPR’s outgoing project manager.


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