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Serb Rebel Leader in Croatia Gets 35 Years

Milan Martic has been found guilty of the majority of charges in the indictment against him.
By Merdijana Sadović
Tribunal judges this week sentenced former leader of the rebel Serb authorities in Croatia Milan Martic to 35 years' imprisonment for crimes committed against the non-Serb population in the early Nineties.

On June 12, Martic was found guilty of nine charges of crimes against humanity and seven counts of war crimes, including persecution, murder, torture, deportation and attacks on civilians.

He was acquitted of extermination, as the number of deaths involved did not justify the charge, said judges.

In its closing arguments in January this year, the prosecution called for Martic to be sentenced to life in prison, citing the gravity of the crimes he was charged with.

The defence, on the other hand, asked for his acquittal.

During the 1991-95 war in Croatia, Martic was the president of the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous District, SAO, Krajina, and was charged with leading the local police force and other armed forces in the expulsion and murder of non-Serbs in Croatia during the same period.

The tribunal judges concluded that Martic participated in a joint criminal enterprise – other members of which included former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - with the aim of creating a new Serb-dominated state through "the forcible removal of a majority of the Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb population from approximately one-third of the territory of Croatia and large parts of Bosnia”.

Reading out the summary of the judgment, Presiding Judge Bakone Justice Moloto said, “It is clear that the SAO Krajina leadership, including Milan Martic, endorsed Slobodan Milosevic's vision to create a Serb-dominated state.”

The trial chamber also established that Martic, as SAO Krajina’s president, exercised absolute authority over its police and armed forces. As such, Martic was obligated to prevent or punish crimes, but the judges concluded that, instead, he “abused his positions and promoted an atmosphere of mistrust and fear” in which the non-Serb population was subjected to widespread and systematic crimes.

Martic was also found guilty of ordering rocket attacks on downtown Zagreb on May 2 and 3 1995, in which seven people died and more than 200 were wounded.

Several public statements he made during the war were quoted in the summary of the judgment, including excerpts from a radio interview from May 5 1995, in which Martic admitted to having ordered the attacks on Zagreb.

"That order was given by me personally, as retaliation to [Croatian president] Franjo Tudman and his staff for the order he had given to commit aggression against Western Slavonija," he stated in that interview.

The defence claimed that the attacks on Zagreb were lawful reprisals under customary international law and that there were military targets in Zagreb at the time of the attacks in May 1995, including the ministry of interior, ministry of defence, Zagreb airport, and the presidential palace.

But the trial chamber dismissed these arguments, saying “reprisals may be used only as a last resort and only when all other means have proven to be ineffective”.

The judges also established that the majority of the crimes Martic was found guilty of were committed against the elderly, people in detention and civilians.

In determining the sentence, they took into account the effects of these crimes on victims and their families and noted that virtually the entire Croat and other non-Serb population was expelled from the area under Martic's control.

In Serbia, there were surprisingly few reactions to Martic’s judgment.

Only members of Serbian Radical Party voiced their opinion, telling the Serbian parliament that the verdict was "shameful" and that Martic "was only sentenced for defending the rights of Serbs [in Croatia]".

The Croatian authorities, meanwhile, expressed their satisfaction with the outcome of the trial.

"It's comforting to know that the hands of justice are slow but far-reaching," Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic told AFP news agency after the sentence was handed down.

Croatian president Stjepan Mesic said that Martic’s sentence was “well deserved and equaled a life imprisonment”, reported local media.

The country’s prime minister, Ivo Sanader, stated that Martic was one of the key players in the rebellion of Croatian Serbs at the beginning of the 1990s and was “certainly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people”.

Some Serb representatives in Croatia also welcomed the judgment.

"Martic symbolised a policy of persecution, murder and destruction, and it is in Croatian Serbs’ interest not only that such a policy is left behind for good, but also that all those who took part in it together with Martic are punished,” Serb deputy in the Croatian parliament Milorad Pupovac told journalists after the verdict was announced.

The initial indictment against Milan Martic was issued on July 25 1995. After seven years on the run, he surrendered to the tribunal on May 15 2002.

While his voluntary surrender constituted a mitigating factor in this case, the trial chamber gave it only minimal weight, said Judge Moloto.

The trial started in December 2005 and concluded on January 13 2007.

It was not immediately clear whether the defence or the prosecution will appeal against the judgment.

Merdjana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.

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