Respite for Croatian War Crimes Suspects

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

Respite for Croatian War Crimes Suspects

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

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

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


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

Serbia, Croatia
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