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

Prosecutors Launch Martic Case

First witness to take the stand describes hard-line stance maintained by the accused throughout the early Nineties.
By Helen Warrell
Prosecutors mounting the case against the former Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic this week called their first witness, a fellow Serb politician who recalled how the accused pursued a separatist agenda from the earliest stages of the conflict in Croatia and consistently opposed negotiations with Zagreb.

Martic, who held various leadership positions in the Serb-dominated Krajina region of Croatia between 1991 and 1995, is charged with involvement in a joint criminal enterprise to expel non-Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia during this period.

He faces ten counts of crimes against humanity and nine counts of violations of the laws and customs of war for crimes such as murder, imprisonment, torture and the destruction of villages.

He is also accused of ordering and planning a shelling campaign targeted at civilians in Zagreb in May 1995.

This week’s witness, Veljko Dzakula, who was deputy prime minister of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, RSK, from 1992 to 1993, said his own political aim had been to find a peaceful solution to the problems between Croatia’s ethnic Serb and Croat populations.

In contrast, Dzakula said that Martic had first risen to fame in August 1990 when he set up roadblocks in Knin, Krajina’s capital, to prevent an invasion of the town by Croatian police. Martic had aligned himself with the “hard-line faction” of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, and expressed a reluctance to cooperate with Zagreb officials even at his “first emergence” on the political scene, the witness said.

In early 1993, Dzakula’s signing of the Daruvar agreement, which pledged to resolve Serb-Croat hostilities through “peaceful dialogue”, was too conciliatory for the SDS hardliners, and he was suspended from the RSK government. The witness said that later that year, he was arrested by the “assistant minister of police to Milan Martic” and taken to Knin where he was accused of being a spy.

Meanwhile, Martic’s political career was ascending rapidly. Dzakula recalled how, during his campaign for the presidency of the RSK in late 1993, Martic had talked of “the unification of the Serb lands”. The indictment states that Martic’s eventual aim was to create a “new Serb-dominated state”.

Prosecutor Alex Whiting showed video footage of one of Martic’s campaign speeches in which he opposed the “voices of darkness” which suggested relinquishing the Krajina territory to the Croatian authorities.

Martic also announced, “I am the puppet of Slobodan Milosevic”, and vowed to “pass the baton” to the Yugoslav president if he were to win the election.

The prosecution claims that, as part of the plan to expand Serbia, Martic oversaw attacks on non-Serbs in the Croatian villages of Dubica, Cerovlanji, Bacin, Saborsko, Poljanac and Lipovaca. These offensives are said to have often involved an organisation known as “Martic’s Police”, who operated within the self-declared Serb Autonomous District of Krajina, SAO Krajina.

Dzakula said that Martic’s command of the police forces could be “quite rough”. “I could see that he was someone who had control, who was obeyed, whose orders were complied with,” he said.

When Whiting asked if Martic would have been aware of crimes being committed against Croat civilians, the witness replied, “I think it was possible for him to know. The SAO Krajina police could have told him.”

Before examining the witness, Martic’s lawyer Predrag Milovancevic informed the court that his defence team had not been able to prepare adequately for the start of the case because they were yet to receive the first instalment of their trial funding from the registry.

Presiding Judge Bakone Justice Moloto, who is new to the tribunal, immediately adjourned proceedings and called upon Sebastian van der Vliet, head of the registry’s Office for Legal Aid and Detention Matters, to clarify the situation. The following day, van der Vliet assured the chamber that the payment would be made by the end of the week.

During cross-examination, Milovancevic suggested that Serbs in Croatia may have felt threatened by increasing Croatian nationalism as espoused by Franjo Tudjman, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, who became president of Croatia in 1990.

When Dzakula admitted that the HDZ campaign could potentially have caused unrest among Croatian Serbs, Milovancevic asked, “Have you ever heard of a case in history when Jews were considered a factor of unrest, and were eliminated, in Hitler’s Germany?”

Whiting objected to this line of questioning on the grounds that it was “not appropriate”. But Martic’s lawyer protested, “I’m just trying to make a comparison of political climates in two completely separate periods of time…I am merely trying to understand the positions involved.”

Milovancevic went on to question the witness about Croatian attacks on Serb civilians, including Operation Flash, a May 1995 offensive by Croatian forces to wrest Western Slavonia from Serb control.

Dzakula estimated that 20,000 Serb civilians had been forced to leave the region and described how one column of refugees came under fire from Croatian machine gun positions. It was also rumoured, he said, that the Croatian army had washed blood off the roads to conceal the evidence of their crimes.

During re-examination, Whiting questioned the witness about his parents, who had been held in prison camps by Croatian nationalist forces known as the Ustasha during World War Two.

Both parents were rescued and hidden by Croat civilians until the end of the war, a fact which Dzakula said had taught him an important lesson. “My parents told me that the Ustasha who put them in camps was one thing, but that the Croats who saved them were another,” he said.

Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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