Serb Officer Testifies for Gotovina Defence

Witness describes climate of fear among Krajina Serbs ahead of Croatia’s Operation Storm.

Serb Officer Testifies for Gotovina Defence

Witness describes climate of fear among Krajina Serbs ahead of Croatia’s Operation Storm.

The defence of former Croatian general Ante Gotovina called as its first witness this week a former intelligence officer of the Yugoslav army, JNA, which was the accused’s foe during Croatia’s 1991-95 war of independence.

Slobodan Lazarevic, a former officer of the JNA counter-intelligence service who worked as an undercover agent in Croatia during the war, testified that nationalist propaganda fomented fear of Croats among Krajina Serbs at the time.

While the witness did not go into detail about his day-to-day activities at that time, he told Hague tribunal judges he collected information from numerous sources, including all forms of media, local civilians, and minutes from meetings at which internationals were present.

Gotovina and fellow Croatian generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of orchestrating the killing of dozens of people and the shelling and torching of Serb towns and villages as Croat forces retook the Serb-controlled Krajina region in August 1995 during the Operation Storm counter-offensive.

An estimated 150,000 ethnic Serbs fled their homes at the end of the action, many never to return.

While the prosecution does not doubt the legality of the effort to recapture Krajina, the indictment accuses the three men of being responsible for the “deportation and forcible transfer, destruction and burning of Serb homes and businesses, plunder and looting of public or private Serb property; murder [and] other inhumane acts” that took place during the massive offensive.

As the overall commander of Operation Storm, prosecutors said in court that Gotovina had known beforehand that among his troops were men who had suffered at the hands of Krajina Serbs and were predisposed to revenge crimes.

The prosecution also alleges in the indictment that Gotovina had known of the mistreatment of Serbs both during and after the offensive but failed to prevent the crimes or punish the perpetrators.

Lazarevic’s testimony is key to backing up the defence argument that it was an underlying culture of fear which led to the Serb exodus from Krajina, rather than any illegal action by Croatian forces during Operation Storm.

Referring mainly to Serb media, Lazarevic said this week that leading up to the offensive, past aggressions by Croatian forces, historical grievances, and nationalist sentiments were manipulated to create a poisonous atmosphere.

Each piece of propaganda “reinforced” a pre-existing fear among Serbs of Croatian forces, he said.

“All you have to do is just light up a little fire at the centre, understanding that it is already there, lurking in the corner somewhere, so you just emphasise a little bit to bring it back to life again,” he said.

The witness told the court that the airwaves were full of nationalistic propaganda, while historical arguments were employed to convince Krajina Serbs that they couldn’t live side by side with Croats.

“To create a little bit of tension … they will just refer to 1941-1945,” when Croatian pro-Nazi forces carried out killings of Serbs and say “‘this is what happened to you then, what do you expect today?’”

But the media were not solely responsible for fear mongering, he added.

“The late [Croatian] president [Franjo] Tudjman said that he [wanted] Krajina without Serbs in it. That was not a secret,” said Lazarevic.

During direct examination, Lazarevic also testified that the composition of Krajina’s population had shifted in the period between 1991 and 1995, with several hundred Croats leaving voluntarily with the aid of the International Committee for the Red Cross, ICRC.

According to Lazarevic, the ICRC assisted both with the transfer of Croats from the Krajina, and the transfer of Serbs into the Krajina.

During cross-examination, the prosecution pressed Lazarevic on the nature of the Serb departures from Krajina, seeking to ascertain how much he knew about the convoys of civilians leaving the region.

“No, I think I made it perfectly clear that from day one [of Operation Storm] we did not have any communication [with Krajina Serbs],” said the witness.

Lazarevic first appeared before the Hague tribunal in 2002 in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, testifying that Milosevic controlled and financed the Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb armies during the wars.

The statements made by Lazarevic to investigators prior to the Milosevic trial, and the transcripts of his testimony in that case were submitted into evidence by Gotovina’s defence team.

The trial is scheduled to continue next week.

Andrew W Maki is an IWPR contributor.
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