Former commander could get 15 years for attacks on Bosnian Muslims.


Former commander could get 15 years for attacks on Bosnian Muslims.

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

Former Bosnian Croat commander Ivica Rajic this week pleaded guilty to charges of murder, unlawful detention and torture of Muslims in central Bosnia in 1993.

“I pleaded guilty because that is what I firmly believe,” said Rajic at a hearing in which he outlined gruesome details of crimes committed in and around the town of Vares and the cover-up that followed.

Under a plea bargain agreement which could see Rajic get up to 15 years in prison, he admitted to four counts of grave breaches of the Geneva conventions including wilful killing, inhuman treatment including sexual assault, appropriation of property and extensive destruction.

Six charges recasting the same crimes as violations of the customs of war were withdrawn by the prosecution.

Rajic was a Croatian Defence Council, HVO, commander in central Bosnia, with authority over several brigades and two special operations units known as Maturice and Apostoli.

As part of the plea bargain, he signed a “factual basis” document outlining in grisly detail how families in the area were shot and killed by soldiers under his command, while others including elderly invalids and children were burned to death.

He admitted knowing that “commanders and members of the Maturice [unit] … mutilated Bosnian Muslims and hung their heads in the ‘open market’ in Kiseljak town”. One of the soldiers under his command drove around the town “with a cut-off Muslim ear attached to the antenna of his car”.

Rajic also admitted to ordering the attack on the small Muslim village of Stupni Do in October 1993. At least 37 Bosnian Muslim men, women and children were killed.

Many of the charges relate to events in Vares, a town about 50 kilometres north of Sarajevo, where Rajic agreed this week that his soldiers “had demonstrated extreme aggression toward the Bosnian Muslim population” and “showed a strong desire to destroy everything that was not Croat”.

On October 23 1993, Rajic said he was ordered by one of his superiors to “sort out the situation in Vares showing no mercy to anyone”.

His officers and soldiers rounded up more than 250 Bosnian Muslim men and beat and abused them. They also looted Muslim property and sexually assaulted Muslim women.

At the time of the attack, Rajic reported back to his commanders that Vares had been “mopped up”, adding that, “as of today Vares is Croatian and we shall fight to keep it that way”.

Rajic also participated in a complex cover-up of the crimes committed in Vares and Stupni Do following media reports of HVO atrocities in the area.

He remained in post but changed his name to Viktor Andric, so that Croat authorities could show the international community he had been removed from command.

In fact, Rajic was subsequently promoted to colonel, and retained his command under the false name.

No soldiers or commanders were ever punished or disciplined for the crimes committed.

Under the plea agreement, Rajic has promised full cooperation with the Hague prosecutor in any future trials.

His name has already emerged in connection with previous trials at the tribunal, including that of Croatian general Tihomir Blaskic, whose original 45-year sentence was dramatically reduced on appeal to nine years.

As Rajic’s superior, Blaskic is mentioned frequently in the factual basis document, leading Judge Alphonse Orie to ask if anything in this material would contradict the findings of the appeal chamber in the Blaskic case.

Prosecutor Kenneth Scott replied that there was “nothing substantial” concerning Blaskic, because he was not charged with the Stupni Do massacre.

Rajic was arrested in Croatia in April 2003, after hiding out for nearly eight years in the Croatian city of Split, reportedly with the help of members of the Croatian police and security services.

Upon transfer to the tribunal, he pleaded not guilty in late June 2003. He again pleaded not guilty to an amended indictment in late January 2004, which included the murders of 16, not 37, Muslim men in Stupni Do.

In July this year, the office of the prosecutor – under tribunal rules stating that low- and mid-ranking cases can be returned to local courts – applied to have his case sent for trial in Sarajevo.

Rajic had earlier requested that one of his defence lawyers, Zeljko Olujic, be removed from his case – apparently over differences in tactics. Doris Kosta, formerly co-counsel, has taken over.

At the hearing Rajic asked the trial chamber to ensure Olujic will not receive any more documents pertaining to his case.

“I am convinced that these documents end up in the wrong hands, the hands of people who are working against me,” said Rajic, calling Olujoc a “common thief”.

His sentencing hearing is tentatively scheduled for November 28 with prosecutors expected to press for 15 years and the defence for a 12-year term.

The presiding judge, however, reminded Rajic that the trial chamber is not bound by the sentencing recommendation in the plea agreement.

“I hope that the sentence will be a just one,” said Rajic.

Adrienne N Kitchen is an IWPR intern in The Hague.

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