Witness Insists Cermak Had No Military Involvement

ex-Croatian military official claims general came to Knin to assist civilians.

Witness Insists Cermak Had No Military Involvement

ex-Croatian military official claims general came to Knin to assist civilians.

A defence witness in the trial of former Croatian army general Ivan Cermak told the Hague tribunal this week that the accused was tasked with normalising life in the town of Knin following Operation Storm.

“General [Ivan] Cermak didn’t have jurisdiction over the military police and came to Knin exclusively to deal with stabilisation of civilian life,” retired Croatian Army, HV, lieutenant general Franjo Feldi told judges this week.

Feldi, the former commander of a Croatian military academy, was the first witness to testify for the defence of Cermak, who is on trial at the Hague tribunal.

Cermak is accused, along with generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, of responsibility for crimes committed against Serb civilians during and after Operation Storm, a Croatian army offensive in August 1995 aimed at reclaiming Serb-held territory.

The three generals are accused of taking part in a joint criminal enterprise, the goal of which was “the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means”.

The indictment says that troops under their control committed murder, torture and looting during and after the operation. It further alleges that at least 37 Serbs were murdered at the time of the assault; that troops also engaged in systematically torching or otherwise destroying and plundering villages inhabited by Krajina Serbs.

According to the indictment, Gotovina, the former commander of the HV’s Split military district had overall control of part of Operation Storm, while Markac was in charge of special police.

Cermak was appointed commander of the Knin garrison by then president of Croatia Franjo Tudjman on August 5, 1995, a role he held until November that year, the indictment says.

He “possessed effective control over members of the HV units or elements who comprised or were attached to, or operated in the Knin Garrison, and also over civilian police who operated in the garrison area and areas adjacent to it”, the indictment continues.

An expert report that Feldi prepared about Cermak’s role in Knin after Operation Storm, along with a statement he gave to Hague tribunal investigators in 2003, were admitted into evidence before the witness testified this week.

Without reading it out, Cermak’s lawyer Steven Kay asked the witness to confirm if the statement was true.

“Mr Kay, I think that I would give the same statement because I can’t invent something that didn’t take place. What I said then, I’m ready to say now and confirm it,” Feldi replied.

The witness then answered questions on his expert report, in which he examined the structure and system of command inside the Croatian military at the time of Operation Storm.

In the report, Feldi stated that during the operation, Cermak was formally subordinate to Gotovina.

Gotovina’s lawyer Luka Misetic tried to clarify further what he meant by this.

“From whom was General Cermak receiving orders?” Misetic asked the witness, refering to the time relevant to the indictment.

“He didn’t get them from anyone,” the witness said. While noting that the Knin garrison was part of Gotovina’s military district, Feldi said that Cermak received no orders and so had to use his own initiative to do the job given to him by Tudjman.

The witness explained that Tudjman had named Cermak commander in Knin with a mission to normalise life in the town, and provide assistance to civilians and United Nations observers, rather than to participate in any kind of military operations.

Feldi then told judges that during Cermak’s time in Knin, he had not been involved in military activity, but had been occupied with receiving visits from national and international delegations.

Feldi explained that besides delegations, Cermak met people in charge of local services, such as the hospital, the police, refuse collection, and other infrastructure. During these meetings, he encouraged them to keep doing their jobs.

The witness then denied that Cermak had been involved in any military action, saying “he had neither jurisdiction, nor military units. No one gave these [military units] to him”.

He concluded that Cermak was not truly subordinate to Gotovina.

Feldi also said that Gotovina was not responsible for events in Knin at that time either as he was devoting his attention to further military operations after the success of Operation Storm.

During cross examination of the witness, the prosecution tried to show that the accused generals were responsible for the behaviour of Croatian troops in Knin at that time.

It put it to the witness that around the time of Operation Storm, the military police came under the command of the HV.

The defence in the case has maintained that the military police came under the command of the military police department, which is based in the capital of Zagreb.

According to HV rules at that time, military police units were subordinate to HV commanders on the ground, the witness confirmed to the prosecution.

“The military police department was responsible for development, equipment and combat readinesses, while superior commanders on the ground were responsible for military police troops’ daily tasks,” Feldi said.

To support his claim, Feldi cited an order issued by former Croatian military police commander Mate Lausic in December 1992.

According to this, commanders of military police units were obliged to participate during coordination meetings and send reports to HV commanders of military zones, Feldi said.

“These meetings confirmed that the military police was subordinate to army commanders who coordinated these meetings and through which they could monitor military police,” Feldi said.

While prosecutors want to prove that Gotovina commanded the military police around the time of Operation Storm, his defence team has argued that they were controlled by Lausic.

Testifying before the Hague tribunal in January this year, Lausic, like Feldi, said that the military police unit commanders were subordinate to operational zone army commanders in the field.

The presentation of Cermak’s defence case will continue next week. Notable witnesses set to testify in the case include current Croatian president Stjepan Mesic, as well as the Bosnia and Hercegovina football team coach Miroslav Ciro Blazevic.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.
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