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Respite for Croatian War Crimes Suspects

The Hague chief prosecutor is widely believed to have concluded a secret deal with Croatian premier Ivica Racan.
By Dragutin Hedl

Croatian generals suspected of war crimes appear to have been reprieved by the The Hague war crimes tribunal.


Croatians could hardly believe their luck when tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte ended a visit to Zagreb in mid-January without indicting six Croat generals.


She also dropped a demand that the army chief-of-staff, General Petar Stipetic, be summoned to The Hague as a witness and there face possible arrest himself.


Croatia took further heart from the Belgrade leadership's refusal last week to extradite Milosevic and other war crimes suspects to The Hague court. Zagreb took the view that Del Ponte could not now press Croatia to accept demands Serbia has rejected.


On her visit to Zagreb, Del Ponte made clear she had lost interest in


Stipetic as a witness. She did not serve anticipated indictments against


the six other generals, Mirko Norac, Ivan Korada, Damir Krsticevic,


Rahim Ademi, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, nor against the former


Interior Minister, Ivan Jarnjak.


On her departure, Del Ponte appeared on very good terms with Premier


Racan, in remarkable contrast to the months of acrimony which had been


raging between Zagreb and The Hague.


There was no official word of any major concessions by Racan. But


speculation swiftly built up that the prime minister must have offered


something to Del Ponte to make her change her tune.


The summons against General Stipetic had so enraged Croatians that for a


while Racan's government appeared in danger. Zagreb was


particularly incensed by the tribunal's demand to talk to the general under


Article 42 and 43 of The Hague Statute. This meant he was summoned not


only as a witness but as a possible suspect too.


General Stipetic was in charge of Operation Storm, a military action


in Croatia during August 1995, in which some 200,000 Serbs were expelled. The General was also in command of operations around Banija and Kordun.


Hague court rules impute responsibility for war crimes not only to the actual


perpetrators but also to the officers commanding them. This meant there


was a high risk that, by going to The Hague as a witness, Stipetic might go


on trial himself.


Racan's government was under political pressure not only from hardline


rightists but also from some of his coalition partners to reject the


tribunal's demands.


Disagreement with the tribunal reached a high point towards the end of last year


after the chief prosecutor's deputy, Graham Blewitt, disclosed The


Hague was completing indictments against the Croatian generals. A deputy


president of the Croatian government, Goran Granic, said Croatia would


not comply with The Hague's demands even if this meant risking


international sanctions.


In a 13-point statement, the Croatian government asked the war crimes court to


restrict its investigations to specific crimes and not to legitimate


military actions such as Operation Storm.


If Del Ponte had gone ahead and demanded Stipetic's appearance at The


Hague, Racan's government would have been in deep trouble. At the height


of the dispute, a split opened up in the government with Racan's most


powerful coalition partner, the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS,


led by the nationalist Drazen Budisa, fiercely opposing moves for possible


extradition.


The two smaller coalition parties, Istrian Democratic Union, IDS, and


the Croatian People's Party, HNS, had by contrast advocated full


cooperation with The Hague. For them, this was better than


facing international isolation.


These two parties together with president Mesic had suggested, prior to


Del Ponte's change of heart, that new parliamentary elections should be


held if the coalition failed to agree on its attitude to The Hague.


Racan was faced with having to appease the tribunal and his coalition at


the same time.


Shortly before the arrival of Del Ponte, Racan's government decided to


transfer 17,000 transcripts of conversations held by the late


president Franjo Tudjman from the presidential office


to the state archives, where they would be kept from public view for at


least 30 years.


In this way, Racan prevented President Mesic from passing the


transcripts to The Hague, a step the president had been inclined to


take. Closing off the documents was done primarily to please HSLS but it


also strengthened Racan's position against the more conciliatory


Mesic. Now Racan, not Mesic, will decide which documents are handed over to The Hague.


The documents are believed to reveal the identities of war criminals.


Now they will be examined by a special government body to decide just


what information can safely be passed to the tribunal. In addition, the


government established a special Office for the Prosecution of War


Crimes suspects to speed up deliberations on the subject.


This last move was taken to mean that Racan is giving serious signals to


Del Ponte that his government, unlike the former Tudjman regime, is


prepared to investigate its own war crimes and show willingness to submit


perpetrators to international justice.


During her visit to Zagreb Del Ponte made plain that Stipetic will not face further


prosecution should he decline to appear before the tribunal. She said The Hague would not prosecute military commanders who did not actually order atrocities. This provision left Stipetic in the clear.


But Zagreb is still wondering whether Racan made secret promises to Del


Ponte. The general feeling in Croatia is that the tribunal will not ignore


war crimes or forgive those responsible. On this understanding, many Croats fear the indictments of the generals, excluding Stipetic, could still arrive in Zagreb.


A few days ago, in an exclusive interview with this journalist, Racan


refused to answer a question on whether he had made any secret promises


to Del Ponte. Speculation persists that Racan might extradite the


suspects once their indictments arrive.


Another school of thought is that Del Ponte was forced to compromise


because her international position was in jeopardy at the time. The last


thing she wanted was a conflict with Croatia when she learned during her


visit to Zagreb that Yugoslav president Kostunica was threatening not to


meet her in Belgrade. Kostunica seems to have changed his mind after learning what


happened in Zagreb.


At that same time, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said


Washington would agree to Milosevic being tried in Belgrade. In the light of


this, Del Ponte would have found it difficult to persuade Croatia that


it should be the only one to extradite war crimes suspects.


Nevertheless, The Hague did not specifically give up its demand for


extradition of the Croatians. Racan may have used the visit to simply


buy extra time to solve his domestic political problem. The answer will


soon come to light.


Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor


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