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

Regional Report: Rijeka Court Convicts Croat Suspects

Government hopes precedent setting case will impress the West.
By Drago Hedl

Three Croat officials, who ordered the deaths of at least 50 ethnic Serbs during the 1991 war, have become the first men to be convicted and sentenced for war crimes by a court in their own country.

One of the accused, General Mirko Norac, was also held to have personally killed a civilian – a Serb woman.

As judge Ika Saric delivered her verdict on March 24 in the Croatian port city of Rijeka, hundreds of demonstrators, bussed-in from other parts of the country, lay down on the streets outside the courtroom.

In Dalmatia, to the south, a second protest saw demonstrators put roadblocks across the main highway into Bosnia-Hercegovina.

For several hours after the protests, police left the roadblocks in place, in an apparent sign of sympathy for the demonstration.

They said they were protesting at the government’s betrayal of men they regard as heroes in a patriotic war.

However, the reaction to the verdict has been milder than many had expected, given the mass outrage when the indictment against General Norac was first

announced in February 2001.

At the time, over 100,000 people converged on the town of Split to protest, bringing traffic in the southern province of Dalmatia to a standstill.

The government hopes the conduct of the trial will have impressed western countries, which have made aid and investment conditional upon Croatia’s willingness to stage war crimes prosecutions.

This success may ease tensions between Croatia and The Hague over Zagreb’s reluctance to hand over its former army commander, General Janko Bobetko to face war crimes charges.

The three officials were convicted of ordering the killing of ethnic Serb civilians in the town of Gospic in Croatia.

The heaviest sentence was handed down to the former secretary of the Gospic Crisis Committee, Tihomir Oreskovic, who was jailed for 15 years.

General Mirko Norac of the Croatian army’s 118th Brigade, and Stjepan Grandic, a lower-ranking army officer, received prison terms of 12 and 10 years respectively.

A fourth defendant, Ivica Rozic, was acquitted on all charges.

Handing down the sentences, Judge Saric described how Oreskovic and Norac had held a meeting on October 16, 1991, in which they decided to give orders for Serb civilians to be herded out of their homes and executed.

At least ten civilians were killed immediately after the meeting, and more deaths in the ensuing days brought the total number of murdered non-combatant Serbs to at least 50.

Saric said other influential figures present at the October meeting should also be investigated.

The judge said that in determining the length of sentences, the court had taken some mitigating circumstances into consideration.

She said Oreskovic was in bad health, Grandic confessed to the crime and is experiencing difficulties with his family and General Norac was only a young man when the atrocities were committed.

The judge also said that the crimes had taken place during a defensive war that was forced on Croatia.

Finally, she said, none of the accused had committed other crimes before or after the ones for which they were being convicted.

Defence counsels for all three men have announced they will appeal against their convictions at the supreme court.

The verdict was criticised by the largest opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, which was in power during the war. HDZ president, Ivo Sanader, told reporters that the “courage of people such as General Mirko Norac had been one of the prerequisites for Croatia’s liberation”.

Anto Djapic, leader of the Croatian Rights Party, went a step further,

accusing the court of bending to the wishes of The Hague, “The ruling ... is conclusive proof that the judiciary hands down decisions that aim to comply with the expectations of tribunal and other international institutions.”

But the left of centre government stands by its decision to try war crimes cases.

Karl Gosinsek, secretary of the Liberal Party, one of the ruling parties, said war crimes should be tried at home, not abroad. “Croatia must prove in these criminal proceedings that it is capable of trying such complex and difficult cases.”

And Mato Arlovic, the vice-president of the Social Democrat Party, which heads the governing coalition, criticised the protesters, saying they would damage Croatia’s image.

“This will only make tribunal officials more suspicious of Croatia,” he said.

Drago Hedl is an IWPR contributor based in Osijek.

More IWPR's Global Voices