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


Judges hear opening statements in trial of former Croatian Serb politician.
By Helen Warrell
Trial proceedings got underway at the Hague tribunal this week against Milan Martic, the former Croatian Serb leader accused of implementing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia between 1991 and 1995.

Martic held various leadership positions in the Serbian Autonomous District of Krajina, SAO Krajina, in southern Croatia, during this period. He is charged with ten counts of crimes against humanity and nine of violations of the laws and customs of war for crimes including extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture and the destruction of villages.

In his opening statement before the court, prosecutor Alex Whiting described the role played by Martic in a plan to “carve out” Serb-dominated areas from Croatia and Bosnia, in order to unite them with Serbia and Montenegro, in cooperation with officers of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and politicians in Belgrade.

Whiting acknowledged that the conflict in Croatia “was not one-sided” and allowed that in the years leading up to the war there, there had certainly been “an insensitivity on the part of Croat leaders to the feelings of local Serbs”.

But he insisted that nothing done by the Croatian side justified the horrors laid out in the indictment against Martic.

He described how attacks on Croat villages were “typically led by the JNA”, with local Serb police known as “Martic’s Police” arriving afterwards to “cleanse” the area of non-Serbs.

And he went on to play a video in court showing the “terror” caused by bombing attacks on Zagreb in May 1995, which Martic is said to have organised. The bombs used in these assaults, which were filled with ball-bearings, would have had “no effect” on buildings or military targets, said the prosecutor.

“Milan Martic intentionally targeted civilians in Zagreb, or was aware that his actions would injure civilians,” he added.

Whiting said that the SAO Krajina had already been established as a “separate political and geographical structure” within Croatia by the end of 1990 and continued in existence until August 1995.

While working within this framework, he argued, Martic was supported by the Serbian ministry of the interior, or MUP, which shared the aim of creating “a separate state for all Serbs”.

In particular, Whiting named Jovica Stanisic, the then head of the Serbian state security service, and Franko Simatovic, the former commander of a Serbian special forces unit known as the Red Berets, as having provided “direction, financial support and weapons”.

He also argued that Martic’s victory over Milan Babic in elections for the presidency of the SAO Krajina in January 1994 was partly enabled by the “critical support” he received from the then Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Babic, formerly a prominent member of the Serbian Democratic party, SDS, pleaded guilty in January 2004 to participating in a joint criminal enterprise to expel non-Serbs from the Krajina area.

Following Whiting’s opening speech, Martic rose to address the court, taking the opportunity to publicly claim that the indictment against him had been “fed by dubious witnesses” and “reversed the role of the victim and the perpetrator”.

The accused insisted that the “real” criminals were the “separatist leaders of former Yugoslav republics who enjoyed the support of international players”.

Martic argued that his only aim in the early Nineties had been to “protect every citizen of the SAO Krajina” at a time when Serbs were being persecuted by the Croatian authorities. To support this theory, he quoted from an April 1990 article in the German magazine Der Spiegel, which described how Croatia’s leading party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, was “fanning the flames of Croatian nationalism”.

The former leader ended his speech with the claim that “those who know me know full well that I was the first to oppose any crime or wrong-doing”.

The prosecution will begin examining their first witness when the trial resumes on January 16.

Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.