Regional Report: Zagreb to Set Up War Crimes Court

Decision to run war crimes trials seen as a smart move on the part of Croatia’s prime minister.

Regional Report: Zagreb to Set Up War Crimes Court

Decision to run war crimes trials seen as a smart move on the part of Croatia’s prime minister.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The Croatian parliament is to begin considering within the next few weeks a draft law which would set up a special court to try war crimes.

The move, set in motion by a government decision earlier in May, would make Croatia the third former Yugoslav republic, after Bosnia and Serbia, to announce plans to establish its own tribunal. Government officials said they hoped that trials – which would take place in Osijek, Rijeka and Split as well as Zagreb – could begin as early as the end of this year.

Zagreb’s announcement pleased officials in The Hague because, in an effort to finish its proceedings by 2008, the international war crimes tribunal is trying to focus only on high-level war crimes suspects and has encouraged Yugoslavia’s successor states to try lower-level ones on their own.

As an incentive, tribunal officials have said they would consider passing some of their less significant cases to the relevant national authorities.

The case most likely to be handed over to Croatia is that of General Rahim Ademi, an ethnic Albanian who served in the Croatian army. Ademi was indicted along with General Janko Bobetko for the murder of Serb civilians in the Medak Pocket in September 1993. Bobetko, who had long been sought by the tribunal, died last month. Ademi turned himself in voluntarily, and has been permitted to return to Croatia until his trial is set to begin.

Although the possibility of Ademi being tried in Croatia is still far from certain, Hague spokeswoman Florence Hartmann confirmed that the tribunal had handed over to Zagreb some boxes of evidence relating to crimes he allegedly committed.

The establishment of a war crimes court is not just a reflection of Croatia’s new willingness to confront atrocities committed in its name. It is also a politically expedient move by Prime Minister Ivica Racan.

Croatia is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election before the end of the year, and Racan’s moderate Social Democrats have been fiercely criticised by the increasingly popular right wing for cooperating with The Hague. Setting up a local tribunal will help him placate the right by obviating the need to extradite suspects to The Hague.

Last month, a court in Rijeka tried Croatian general Mirko Norac for war crimes committed against Serb civilians in Gospic in 1991. Although the general was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison, Racan was able to neutralise right-wing criticism by pointing out that he had ensured that the trial was held in Croatia and not The Hague.

So as soon as Hague officials indicated that they might be willing to hand some cases over to the local courts, Racan’s government announced its intention to form a tribunal of its own.

"Racan is using the fact that the Hague tribunal is pressed for time and money and needs to hand some cases to national courts. That is why he has taken the initiative," a government official told IWPR.

Since the death of Bobetko, only Ademi and one other war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina, remain in Croatia. Gotovina is in hiding and Racan’s government has offered a 50,000 euro reward for information leading to his arrest. However, if Racan is unable to find the fugitive general and can ensure that Ademi is tried in Croatia, he will be able to tell his critics that he has not sent anyone to The Hague.

The existence of a war crimes court is also expected to aid Croatia in its bid for European Union membership, which it hopes to achieve by 2007.

"Its ability to try war criminals is of crucial importance for achieving that aim," said Zagreb lawyer Anto Nobilo, who is representing Croatian general Tihomir Blaskic at The Hague.

But although Racan’s decision seems likely to satisfy both the tribunal and the nationalists, it has its critics.

When the idea of trying war crimes in Croatia was first discussed earlier this year, supreme court chairman Ivica Crnic said he thought it was a good idea. However, he insisted that such trials should be held in the regular courts, not in a special war crimes court.

"Croatian judges can conduct these proceedings since they already have experience from a series of cases. They are capable of it, and there is no problem there," he said.

Vesna Alaburic, a highly respected lawyer in Zagreb, agreed. "That kind of [special] court does not exist in any democratic country," she said.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor from Croatia.

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