Tribunal Set to Question Croatian General

Croatia concerned over Hague tribunal decision to question army commander

Tribunal Set to Question Croatian General

Croatia concerned over Hague tribunal decision to question army commander

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Zagreb's coalition government has crossed swords with the UN war crimes tribunal following its decision to question the Chief of Staff of the Croatian army, General Petar Stipetic, about military offensives against Serbs during the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

Croatia has, meanwhile, presented a list of 13 conditions for further cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in The Hague and the court's main prosecutor Carla del Ponte is to visit Croatia in January.

It's a tricky time for Prime Minister Ivica Racan, as his main partner in the six-party coalition is the Croatian Social-Liberal Party, HSLS, of Drazen Budisa, a nationalist who believes The Hague wants to "criminalize" what he and many other Croats call the Homeland War.

Should he withdraw from the coalition over the Stipetic case, the government would collapse and serious political instability would ensue.

Stipetic, who was appointed chief of staff by the new reformist government in January, has said he is prepared to talk to the tribunal investigators. But there are concerns in Zagreb about whether he will be questioned as a witness or a suspect.

The general played a senior role in Operation Storm in August 1995, when the Croatian army recaptured most of Krajina, the stronghold of rebel Serbs since the autumn of 1991. As a consequence, 200,000 Serbs living in the region were forced to leave their homes. The Croatian Helsinki Human Rights Committee documented the deaths of up to 677 civilians in the operation.

Stipetic commanded the armed forces in the Banija and Kordun area. Although not held directly responsible for war crimes, it may be shown that he knew crimes were being carried out and took no steps to punish the perpetrators, rendering him open to prosecution.

The Croatian media has regularly reported that The Hague is preparing indictments against six Croatian generals - Mirko Norac, Ivan Korada, Damir Krsticevic, Rahim Ademi, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. To these names are often added those of the former minister of interior, Ivan Jarnjak and General Stipetic.

ICTY deputy prosecutor Graham Blewit has indicated that the names are correct, but has refused to give more details.

The pressing question for Croatia is whether these generals, if indicted, should be extradited to The Hague.

Although he has not openly said so, Budisa is thought to be against the possible extradition of the military commanders and may demand that it be halted as a condition for his future participation in the government. Racan, a socialist, is also fearful of the possible reaction of the Croatian right-wing, particularly that of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, founded by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.

In an interview with the Croatian weekly Globus, Racan's adviser Goran Granic discussed future cooperation with The Hague in terms unheard since the times of Tudjman. "We will not accept any demands from The Hague, even if it means UN sanctions! " he said. Granic talked in similar tones in a letter to the ICTY on November 18, which was not well received by the tribunal.

The Croatian government's 13 point statement to the ICTY asks that The Hague restricts its examinations to particular crimes and not legitimate military actions, such as Operation Storm.

It also calls for the tribunal to examine crimes which were perpetrated first. This means Croatia would not accept the investigation of crimes committed during Storm in 1995 before crimes perpetrated by Milosevic's Yugoslav army in 1991 and during the war in Croatia.

The answer from The Hague was clear and quick. Carla del Ponte pointed out sharply that Croatia could not dictate to the ICTY.

The government will face a difficult situation if the ICTY publicly indicts the Croatian generals.

Should it refuse to comply, its standing with the international community would plummet and it would face virtual international isolation, equal to when Tudjman's HDZ was in power.

But if the government extradites the generals, it faces charges of national treason from the right-wingers who will seek to turn the public - convinced for years by Tudjman's propaganda that the Croats could not have committed war crimes during their war of liberation - against the authorities.

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor

Balkans, Croatia
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