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

Kordic & Cerkez Case

Prosecutors call for life imprisonment
By IWPR

In their closing arguments last week, prosecutors called for Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez to be given life sentences.


Kordic, a former political leader of Croats in central Bosnia, and Cerkez, former commander of the Croatian Defence Force, HVO, Vitez brigade, are accused of crimes committed by the HVO during the Croat-Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) conflict in 1992 and 1993.


Both indictments list 22 counts, including persecuting Bosniaks, unlawful attacks on civilians, murders, inhuman treatment and destruction of property.


Kordic and Cerkez face charges of personal responsibility for crimes and of responsibility for crimes committed by individuals under their command.


The charges constitute crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and violations of the laws or customs of war.


Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice claimed the Bosnian Croat authorities' policy was not only a reaction to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, BiH, but represented the implementation of a hidden agenda to "impose power on others through bodies which had no democratic mandate."


Nice supported his claims that the two accused were part of a "joint plan" with evidence gleaned from HVO documents, especially from the war diary of the Central Bosnia "Operative Zone", uncovered in Croatian archives earlier this year.


Entries in the diary register when and about what Kordic and Cerkez contacted the senior military HVO commander in Central Bosnia, Tihomir Blaskic, during the April 1993 offensive.


One entry states "Kordic and Blaskic exchanged views at 14.30", another referred to Cerkez's report that "Ahmici is 70 per cent done."


On the basis of these entries, the prosecution concluded the accused "were sharing information with Blaskic about a deathly plan", part of which involved the attack on Ahmici. Over 100 Bosniak civilians were killed in the village on April 16, 1993 and every Bosniak house destroyed.


"This is the first case involving a serious politician to reach a conclusion at the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia]," Nice said.


In an effort to prove Kordic the politician had a military role, and therefore bore responsibility for crimes committed by military personnel, Nice pointed to Kordic's orders for artillery to be used during the April offensive and for the redeployment of various units throughout the Lasva valley.


The judges pressed the prosecution to specify exactly how their case links Kordic with various crimes in the field. Judge Patrick Robinson pointed out that as the accused held a civilian position, and not a military rank, "the evidentiary threshold to establish command responsibility" is higher.


The prosecution responded that this higher threshold could be met with the material evidence, which indicates Kordic's military involvement was continual and finally confirmed with his appointment to HVO chief headquarters at the end of 1993.


When asked by the judges to clarify whether Kordic was accused of all HVO criminal acts in the Lasva valley, the prosecution said he was not, but the various authority bodies were linked and that "Kordic was never less powerful than Blaskic, and at certain times was even more powerful".


The defence, in their closing arguments, said there was no evidence pointing to the existence of a "plan" against Bosniaks, nor of either of the accused being involved in drawing up or implementing such a scheme.


Kordic's defence reiterated claims he was not part of the HVO chain of command and therefore cannot be held responsible for the actions of army.


"The prosecution case against Kordic comes down to Busovaca alone," said Stephen Sayers, the defendant's lawyer, referring to the town where Kordic's political headquarters, as a leader of the local Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, were located.


Sayers went on to claim Kordic's influence even in Busovaca was limited because local civilian and military authorities, outside of his control, operated in the town.


Sayers argued the prosecution had failed to prove a systematic persecution of Bosniaks had taken place, and given the area concerned in the indictment covered nearly 30 municipalities, had failed to prove Kordic could be held responsible for what crimes did take place.


"These are only general accusations… Who were the troops under Kordic's command?" Sayers asked, adding the evidence linking the defendant to the planning of attacks, especially at Ahmici and Stupni Do, or to military operations in the Lasva valley was "very fragile".


Judge Richard May then said politicians, even if they do not have troops under their direct command, can nevertheless be held responsible for crimes committed by the army.


Cerkez, however, was a military officer and as such is accused of crimes allegedly committed by troops under his command.


"There was a joint plan, jointly executed," Nice said. "He had authority and … reported on what was collectively done."


Nice conceded a document does exist which concludes Cerkez was not responsible for the Ahmici killings. [See Tribunal Update No.194]. But he said it would be left to the judges' discretion to determine whether he was culpable as a person allegedly responsible for drawing up the "joint plan" even if "from a narrow point of view" he was not deemed responsible.


At no point, Nice added, has Cerkez expressed regret over what happened at Ahmici or attempted to distance himself from the episode.


Cerkez's defence claimed he held too lowly a position to be aware of any "big plan". Furthermore, they argued there is no evidence to connect those forces under Cerkez's command to the crimes.


Units such as the "Knights" special forces and the 4th battalion of the HVO military police, both connected to various crimes committed during the 1993 offensive, were not part of Cerkez's Vitez brigade, the defence said, but under the command of the "Operative Zone" controlled by Blaskic.


The Ahmici attack, the defence argued, was not committed by troops from the Vitez brigade. "Even if some members of that brigade did take part in that attack, they did not do so on Cerkez's orders," his lawyer said.


Arguing the prosecution case was made up of circumstantial evidence and assumptions, rather than hard evidence, the defence called for Kordic and Cerkez to be acquitted.