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

Mesic: Hero or Traitor?

The tribunal finally reveals the identity of the protected witness in the Blaskic case.
By IWPR
The man at the centre of a political storm at the tribunal over protected witnesses and the rights of journalists was finally revealed this week to be Croatian president Stjepan Mesic.



Judges agreed to a prosecution request to remove protective measures on a witness statement and testimony given by Mesic at the tribunal eight years ago, so that his appearance here - behind closed doors in the case against top Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaskic - can now been made public.



The identification of Mesic as the witness in the case has been an open secret among Croatians for many years - with the details of his evidence, concerning Croatia’s role in the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina under former president Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s, exposed in various newspapers and websites.



But the tribunal rules on protected witnesses mean that four Croatian journalists are still due to face trial for their alleged roles in the publication of extracts from his witness statement and testimony in a series of articles in the Croatian press between 2000 and 2004.



When Mesic gave his statement to Hague prosecutors in April 1997, he was an opposition politician, but since becoming Croatian president in 2000 he himself has confirmed that he was the witness concerned; has repeated many of the details of his testimony publicly and has even testified in two further cases, in public, at The Hague.



When testifying in the Blaskic trial, he told the court how Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic – then president of Serbia - met in 1991 and effectively agreed to divide Bosnia. He also implicated the Croatian army in the Bosnian war.



He described how members of the Croatian army, HV, were sent to Bosnia, officially as volunteers. “The coffins were returning and families were protesting,” he said in his testimony to the court. “The soldiers told me how they were ordered to take off HV emblems and put on those of HVO (Bosnian Croat army).”



He goes on to describe how he was told about a massacre by HVO forces at Prozor, a town in central Bosnia, by a senior Croatian official, “[He] told me about Prozor, that we killed so many of them that we couldn’t load them all into the trucks….I threw him out of office and since then we haven’t exchanged a word.”



During the early 1990s, Mesic had been a highly-placed insider - he was the last of the rotating presidents of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - holding regular meetings with Milosevic and Tudjman, as Yugoslavia finally fell apart.



His testimony angered the right-wing of Croatian politics. The fact that Mesic had cooperated with the tribunal, and had dared to criticise some of the holy cows of Croatian national life gave his opponents an opportunity to attack him as a “traitor”.



Mesic’s witness statement was leaked to the press in 1997, leading to a flurry of headlines such as “Mesić’s knife in Croatia’s back”, and “Stipe Mesić - prosecutor’s witness at the Hague tribunal”.



The prosecution requested protective measures on his behalf, when he came to testify in 1998, after his family received death threats.



The Blaskic case has been one of the most controversial and time consuming at the tribunal. The Bosnian Croat general was originally sentenced to 45 years in prison for his responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Muslims in Bosnia.



However, in a dramatic reversal, the appeals chamber slashed his sentence to just nine years when new evidence was found in the state archives - after the death of Tudjman - which exonerated Blaskic. The general received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Zagreb from The Hague.



Since then, the prosecution has filed a confidential request for review of the Blaskic judgment alleging that there are new facts in the case which could affect the judgement. No decision has yet been made by the appeals chamber.



In addition, the case has been the subject of several contempt of court prosecutions against Croatian journalists and the former head of Croatia’s secret police, concerning the revelation of the testimonies and statements of protected witnesses.



One contempt case – that of journalist Ivica Marijacic and Markica Rebic, formerly of the secret service – was heard by judges last week.



The case of four other Croatian journalists who face a joint indictment - Domagoj Margetić, Marijan Križić, Josip Jović and Stjepan Šešelj – is still to be heard.



Šešelj's defence council Željko Olujić told the Croatian news agency HINA that although it was good that protective measures were lifted so that the trial could be held in public, the decision had no effect on the merits of the case itself.



However, Margetić, who has used every means possible to make the Mesic testimony public since his indictment, sees the decision as a great victory for freedom of speech.



“We fought out for rights of the public to information” he told HINA “ the public has the right to know what the head of state said in front of International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia.”



Croatian insiders say that the controversy surrounding Mesic’s testimony is not so much about the right of the public to information, and more a reflection of the continued struggle between forces of the old guard of Croatian politics – those who have remained loyal to Tudjman and the nationalist politics he championed – and the new generation, as embodied by Mesic.



The prominent Zagreb lawyer, Ante Nobilo, who represented Blaskic at The Hague, told IWPR that the leaking of the Mesic evidence was an “organised campaign by Mesić’s political opponents”. He points out that the details were made public “just after he became president, and not until then”.



Nobilo - who has been accused of being the source of the leak, in documents presented in the Milosevic trial - instead pushed the blame for trying to destabilise Mesic onto those he described as the “para-intelligence structure who lost power”.



He points out that Rebić - the ex-secret service official who has already been charged with passing transcripts of testimony to Marijačić - was an associate advisor to Blaskic's defence and had access to all the transcripts.



He accuses the journalists who revealed Mesić’s testimony of “being at the disposal of that para-intelligence structure” and “continuing to work for them after they lost power”.



The tribunal’s latest move to remove the protective measures came as no great surprise to Mesić, who told Croatian journalists earlier this week that he had requested the action in August 2005. “I spoke the truth in The Hague and I stand by all I said then,” HINA quoted him as saying. “Those who wanted to manipulate the public and create wrong picture about me, they are not interested in the truth.”



Mesic was elected president after the death of Tudjman on a pro-European and pro-NATO ticket on February 7, 2000.



In September that year he retired seven Croatian active generals who had written two open letters to the public arguing that the current government administration was “campaigning to criminalise” the Homeland War, the Croatian war, and accused it of neglecting the army.



Mesić held that active officers could not write public political letters without approval of their president and commander-in-chief. Despite opposition from other parties, that he was setting a precedent that could harm Croatian national security, Mesic went ahead and later retired four more generals for similar reasons.



Mesic also used his position as president to disclose several government documents concerning Tudjman’s talks on Croatia’s role in the division of Bosnia.



Mesic remains a controversial figure, who appears to attract admiration and hate in equal measure.



“Whoever spits on his name, because of his statements about Tudjman and the involvement of Croatia into the war in Bosnia, still spits on his name,” Milan Peh, the daily news editor at the independent Croatian radio 101 told IWPR.



“Some say his testimony [at the court] was biased when it concerned the real events in Bosnia during the war. But supporters say Mesić only spoke the truth.”



Executive editor of Vecernji List, award-winning journalist Dražen Klarić, pointed out to IWPR that the publicity concerning his testimony at The Hague has, so far, done Mesic no harm.



A realistic appraisal of the benefits of a Mesic presidency was evident last year, says Klaric, when he was re-elected, even though voters had previously removed the left-of-centre government from power and put Mesic’s political opponents in charge.



“Mesić has broader support than just from left-wing voters,” said Klaric to IWPR. “He can’t be seen as a traitor.”



And many Croats credit Mesic for Croatia’s healthy international reputation, following the capture of high profile alleged war criminal Ante Gotovina, and the confirmation of the EU’s firm commitment to accession talks with Zagreb.



“He’s an excellent minister of foreign affairs, because in every country he’s received as the democrat who has changed Croatia for the better,” said Klaric.



Janet Anderson is IWPR project manager in The Hague and Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.