REGIONAL REPORT: Bosniaks Demand Croat Indictments

Bosniaks are growing ever more impatient for The Hague tribunal to indict Croats who set up brutal prison camps in Bosnia during the war.

REGIONAL REPORT: Bosniaks Demand Croat Indictments

Bosniaks are growing ever more impatient for The Hague tribunal to indict Croats who set up brutal prison camps in Bosnia during the war.

Nearly eight years after the Croatian Defense Council, HVO, established notorious prison camps for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in Herzegovina, no indictments have been brought by The Hague tribunal against individuals alleged to have been directly responsible for the detention centers.

More and more Bosnians now want an explanation; in particular they want to know why Jadranko Prlic, war-time president of the so called 'Croatian Union of Herceg Bosna' and the HVO, and currently the federal deputy trade minister in Bosnia-Herzegovina, BiH, has not been indicted.

So far, only Vinko "Stela" Martinovic and Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic are being tried in The Hague for their participation in the 'Herceg Bosna' crimes.

The camps - Heliodrom, Rodoc, Gabela, Dretelj and many others - were founded in 1993 during the military conflict between Bosniaks and Croats in BiH. A detailed report by the UN's special emissary for human rights at that time, Thaddeus Mazowietzski, told of the killing, harassment, rape and starvation of prisoners.

Mazowietski said the camps incarcerated numerous civilians as well as war prisoners. Dretelj alone held 32 children under 17 years of age; 55 women aged between 18 and 80; and more than 30 men over 60 years of age. According to rough estimates of The Hague prosecutor's office, confirmed by UNHCR in 1993, these camps held between 10,000 and 15,000 inmates.

Other camps organised by Bosnian Serb authorities - such as Keraterm and Omarska - for Bosniaks and Croats have already been dealt with by The Hague tribunal. Indictments relating to these have been handed out. But not so for the camps run by Croats.

The Bosnian public, much prone to conspiracy theories, is abuzz with speculation about The Hague investigations and the policies of the international community. The Hague's refusal to comment on the inquiry adds fuel to the speculation.

A popular theory is that investigations are being dragged out because of a reluctance to put the blame on Prlic. In May 1993, two and a half years after its establishment, the government of 'Herceg Bosna' - which the Sarajevo authorities dismissed as illegal - merged military and political structures giving Prlic, as president of the entity, the highest executive power.

There have been persistent claims that Prlic signed secret documents approving the establishment of camps in Herzegovina. Allegedly confidential documents showing that Prlic had apparently ordered the setting up of one, Gabela, on June 8,1993, were published three weeks ago in the Zagreb weekly Nacional.

Under pressure from the West during the war, Mate Granic, former president of Croatian government, demanded the closure of these detention centres. Prlic responded with a soothing report, published in the Zagreb daily Vecernji list on July 24, 1993. "Attacks by Muslim forces on the Mostar area forced the HVO forces to use preventive measures against BiH army personnel," he said. " Former army housing in Dretelj and a former army school building in Rodoc were used for this purpose, no camps were formed at all."

With CNN and other Western media continuing to report brutal treatment in the Herzegovina camps, and under political pressure from Croatia, Prlic issued an order for the camps to be closed down in August, 1993 - although there are claims that some were still open well over a year later.

Subsequently, in 1995, Prlic played a leading part in the Dayton negotiations which brought peace to Bosnia. According to many delegates and foreign analysts, he cooperated closely with the American team, a fact which angered Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, hard-liners.

When asked by a Slobodna Bosna reporter on September 6, 2001, if his good relationship with the Americans had kept him safe from The Hague all these years, Prlic replied, "No one discussed these matters with me. In the end, I would never negotiate issues that made me dependent on anyone."

But much of the Bosnian media continues to regard Prlic as an American ally. At Dayton he moved into the ranks of cooperative politicians, worked hard at the treaty's implementation in Bosnia and represented a moderate wing of HDZ. This resulted in his departure from HDZ in June last year, and his adoption of independent candidature.

The Hague prosecution spokesperson, Florence Hartmann, refused to comment on the authenticity of the documents published in Nacional. IWPR approached Hartmann, suggesting there were far too many coincidences concerning Prlic, leading to a belief that the tribunal had yielded to political pressures and postponed certain indictments.

She briskly denied this. "Something like that is not possible!" she said "If anyone from the American administration or the international community called us up and told us not to indict we would never accept it."

The Bosnian media speculate that other potential candidates for indictment could include the chief of the HVO army police management, Valentin Coric, defence minister Bruno Stojic, the HVO's chief of staff, General Slobodan Praljak and General Zeljko Siljeg.

A common assumption in BiH is that once the tribunal nails responsibility on military and political leaders, their subordinates often escape prosecution. That theory could encourage lower ranking officials to send incriminating documents signed by Prlic to Carla Del Ponte at The Hague, and could possibly explain why the HDZ may have leaked the secret document to Nacional.

Prlic's wartime companion, 'Herceg-Bosna' government member, Kresimir Zubak, now BiH minister for human rights, told Dani magazine that Prlic's signature on the document was undoubtedly authentic. He said that as a lawyer he was confused by the tribunal's policy of looking for "high command responsibility". "Although I don' t dispute that people in positions of authority should be held responsible for their mistakes, this doctrine opens up possibilities to indict people even though they had nothing to do with what actually happened in the field," he said.

According to Zubak's interpretation of "command responsibility", and in accordance with what Prlic has stated publicly so far, it seems that if faced with charges his defense would be based on the plea that he was simply following orders from Zagreb. However, the tribunal rejected this line of defence when it was used by General Tihomir Blaskic.

Prlic has commented on the media speculation against him. In an interview with Slobodna Bosna on September 6, he spoke of the alleged signature published by Nacional. "Of course all this concerns me, and I consider it necessary that those who are guilty face the courts, " he said. " Even those who carried no official function at the time need to feel a moral responsibility for what happened.

"But it is necessary that the story be analysed from a legal perspective. Basically, the decision to create prison camps is not illegal, since war implies prisoners of war, this being the reason behind the formation of the Geneva conventions. And the conventions are there to ensure that those who didn't behave in accordance with them should carry resonsibility for their actions."

Media speculation over Prlic reached fever pitch when Carla Del Ponte, on a visit to Sarajevo in early September, said The Hague prosecution office has a list of eleven indictments. Many Bosnians, such as Bosniak Mensur Pasic, hope the federal minister will be among them. His family felt the horrors of Hercegovinian camps and view Prlic's post-war moderation as two-faced, "I live for the day when Prlic sits in The Hague. It is high time that it be established who bears the highest responsibility for crimes over Bosniaks in Hercegovina," he said.

Edina Becirevic is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Criminal Science at Sarajevo University

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