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Kordic & Cerkez Trial - A commander without an army

Tribunal Update 191 Last Week in The Hague (September 18-23, 2000)
By IWPR

Cerkez, former commander of the Croatian Defence Force, HVO, Vitez Brigade, is accused among other things of taking part in the Ahmici massacre on April 16, 1993, which left at least 100 Muslim villagers dead.


His defence lawyers claim the Vitez Brigade was still being formed at the time of the Lasva valley offensive in April 1993 and comprised only a "command core" of five or six individuals.


Vlado Taraba, a former colleague of Cerkez's at the brigade headquarters, said an "informal meeting" had taken place on the eve of the Lasva valley attacks, during which information was received that Bosnian army troop movements had been noted. Taraba said no decision was taken at the meeting.


During cross-examination, the prosecution presented a combat order to the Vitez Brigade, issued by the then commander in the area, Tihomir Blaskic - recently sentenced to 45 years imprisonment by the tribunal.


The order, dated at 1.30 am April 16, 1993, called upon the Vitez Brigade to block the Lasva river valley area, take up positions, prevent all movement in and out of the villages, neutralise possible attack by the Bosnian army and be ready for action by 5.30 am.


The indictment against Cerkez and co-accused Dario Kordic and several prosecution witnesses claim the HVO offensive against the Muslim community in and around Vitez, including Ahmici, began at 5.30am on April 16.


Taraba said he knew "absolutely nothing" about the combat order or to whom it referred. Only the five or six "command core" personnel were at the brigade headquarters, the witness said. And as the brigade was still being formed there were no soldiers to carry out such instructions.


Judge Richard May described Taraba's testimony as "useless". "We are not getting anywhere with this witness," said May, who nevertheless allowed the prosecutor to continue.


Cerkez's defence team called 13 witnesses last week, something of a record for the tribunal. In addition to reiterating the accused had no army to command, that Muslim's in Vitez had been detained temporarily "for their own safety", and that the HVO had no plans to ethnically cleanse the region, two new topics were raised by these witnesses.


The prosecution and several of its witnesses claim HVO forces under the command of Cerkez and Kordic forced Muslim detainees to dig trenches along the frontline, which resulted in the death or injury of many prisoners.


The defence insists however that trench digging was a "work duty" which all men not under arms, regardless of ethnic origin, were obliged to undertake.


Former president of the Vitez municipality Dusko Lukovic, who described himself as a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia and a Serb by nationality, said he had been assigned to a "work platoon" to dig trenches around Vitez in June 1993.


Although 58-years-old at the time, Luskovic said he had "stoically accepted his legal obligation". The work platoon, Luskovic said, was multiethnic, including Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Romanies "and even a Slovenian". The witness said they were escorted to work by Bosnian Croat soldiers, not to prevent any escape attempts, but as protection against possible attack by the Bosnian army.


When asked by the prosecution if he would have responded so positively to a similar summons from the parallel Muslim authority in old Vitez to dig trenches for the Bosnian army, Luskovic said he would have.


The witness said under Yugoslav law, still operative in Bosnia at the time, it was his "legal obligation".


The defence also sought to rebuff charges that the Croatian language had been introduced by the authorities to discriminate against Muslims and to further Bosnian Croat independence aspirations. The defence argued that introducing the Croatian language was the only option, as the Bosniak language did not yet exist.


Ante Miketa, a Vitez primary school headmaster and a former deputy president of the town's nationalist Croatian Democratic Union party, said up to 1992 Serbo-Croatian was the official language. But after the Serb aggression, Miketa said, parents had asked that the "Serb" be dropped. Hence the language became known as "Croatian".


The old "brotherhood and unity" ethos from the Tito era had become unacceptable to Croats and Bosniaks in the wake of Serbian actions, the headmaster explained. New school books were therefore imported from the only other available source - Croatia, Miketa said. He denied there was a political directive regulating school books.


Despite a heated exchange with the prosecution, who claim orders relating to the Croatian language came from the Bosnian Croat authorities, Miketa insisted such decisions were taken at municipal level by the elected representatives of all the parties.


The prosecutor also pointed out that in 1992 Bosniaks in Vitez had proposed changing the language from Serbo-Croatian to Bosnian, a name which would have offended no-one. Miketa said he had already referred to the Bosniak language. Bosnian language, he went on, would have had to reflect the languages spoken by all the nationalities in Bosnia.


Miketa did not explain, however, what had prevented the municipal authorities from regulating language policy to the satisfaction of both the Croatian and Bosniak communities.


The defence is expected to conclude its proving procedure in mid-October, when Cerkez himself is to testify. His co-accused Kordic has opted not appear in his own defence.


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