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

Prosecution Demands Life for Martic

Defence dismisses case against former leader of rebel Serb authorities in Croatia as “fiction”.
By Caroline Tosh
Hague tribunal prosecutors this week called for the former leader of the rebel Serb authorities in Croatia to be sentenced to life in prison, citing the gravity of the crimes he was charged with.

They also claim Milan Martic’s responsibility for those “horrific” crimes has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The defence said Martic is not guilty and asked for his acquittal.

The trial chamber heard closing arguments from the prosecution and defence just over a year after the start of Martic’s trial.

During the 1991-95 war in Croatia, he was the president of the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous District, SAO, Krajina, and was charged with leading the local police force and other armed forces in the expulsion and murder of non-Serbs in Croatia during the same period.

The prosecution said it had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Martic was responsible for the killing and persecution of non-Serbs in Krajina and also for the shelling of the Croatian capital in May 1995 - an attack which left seven civilians dead and some 200 wounded.

“The crimes in this case were extraordinarily grave and horrific. The prosecution therefore recommends that…the accused Milan Martic should be sentenced for a term of imprisonment for life,” said prosecutor Alex Whiting.

Martic, dressed in a navy suit and striped tie, took notes as Whiting listed several aggravating factors related to the alleged crimes, which he said warranted the maximum sentence if Martic is convicted.

He said Martic showed “willing and enthusiastic participation” in the events “which went on from 1991 to 1995, all over the Krajina, again and again”. Whiting added that Martic, who has pleaded not guilty to all counts, had shown “no remorse whatsoever”.

Instead, he suggested, the trial chamber had heard “justification” for the crimes allegedly committed in the region, which was proclaimed the autonomous Serb republic of Krajina in 1991, after Croat nationalists won the country's first multi-party elections in 1990.

Martic faces 19 charges - including crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war - for crimes such as murder, imprisonment, torture and the destruction of villages, as well as for the Zagreb bombing.

He is also charged with involvement in a joint criminal enterprise - along with former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - to forcibly remove the majority of the non-Serb population from large parts of Croatia and Bosnia, the end goal being the creation of a new Serb-dominated state.

This week, Whiting claimed that the prosecution had proven Martic played a leading role in this enterprise, which began before August 1991 and lasted until at least August 1995.

“It’s clear that Mr Martic did not just participate in the joint criminal enterprise. He was an essential component to its success,” he said.

Whiting argued that “from beginning to end” Martic controlled the region’s police and military forces that the prosecution allege were behind the expulsion and murder of non-Serbs in the region.

He described how the Croatian Serb leadership promoted ethnic hatred of Croats by way of a constant stream of propaganda that fostered a climate of fear amongst Serbs in the region.

“They had been told again and again and again that Croats were Ustasas…that they were going to destroy the Serbs,” he said.

This hatred then made it possible for people to murder, detain, loot, and destroy in a campaign targeted against non-Serbs in Krajina, he said.

“Many of the people who committed these crimes…had been persuaded that there was no evil in doing evil to evil people,” he said, alluding to a statement made by a defence witness during the case.

“The principal leader who brought the people to this point was the accused Milan Martic.”

This attempt to drive out non-Serbs by terror and force worked, continued Whiting.

By 1994, nearly all the Croats were gone from the Republic of Serbian Krajina, RSK, which the SAO came to be known as after December 1991.

The prosecution also proved that Martic ordered the shelling of Zagreb “in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop Operation Flash in western Slavonia”, said Whiting, referring to a successful Croat offensive in early 1995 to regain part of Krajina.

Whiting said that Martic’s “own words” also supported the case against him, and read out many public statements made by the man who was caught on film claiming to be the “puppet of Slobodan Milosevic”.

To bolster its case, the prosecution repeatedly referred to the testimony of Milan Babic - the former senior Croatian Serb politician and colleague of Martic, who hanged himself in the Hague detention unit in March last year.

Babic testified against Martic as part of his a plea bargain in which he admitted his own responsibility for war crimes committed at the time, claiming Martic provoked the war in Croatia in 1991.

But the prosecution case suffered a setback when Babic died before Martic’s defence lawyers could finish cross-examining him.

In his closing arguments, Martic’s lawyer Predrag Milovancevic dismissed the prosecution case as “fiction”.

“The main position of the defence is that the prosecution failed to prove the allegations from the indictment – all of them,” he began.

According to Milovancevic, the prosecution has applied “a selective approach to events in the territory of the former Yugoslavia”.

He denied that Martic was ever motivated by chauvinism or intolerance towards a certain group, as claimed in the indictment.

To counter this claim, he said, was testimony from a number of witnesses who testified that “they never observed any traces of hatred or intolerance in [Martic] against the Croatian community”.

Milovancevic said that while the prosecution claimed that this case was not about who is to blame for the break-up of former Yugoslavia, the defence considered it a pertinent factor.

Throughout its case, the defence has tried to show that it was the Croatian authorities that provoked the war with the Krajina Serbs, and not the other way around.

This week, Milovancevic reiterated that during the period in question, an armed rebellion by the newly independent state of Croatia against the former Yugoslavia was taking place. He said that Martic was only trying to protect his people, who were afraid mass executions and persecutions of Serbs would ensue once Croatia was no longer part of Yugoslavia.

A judgement is expected this spring or by early summer.

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices