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Respite for Croatian War Crimes Suspects
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
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
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
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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