Analysis 28 Nov 17

Bosnian Croats Face Judgment on ‘Greater Croatia’ Charges

The Hague Tribunal will rule this week on an appeal from six wartime Bosnian Croat officials who were convicted of involvement in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at establishing a ‘Greater Croatia’.

Radosa Milutinovic BIRN Belgrade
The defendants in court. Photo: ICTY.

Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoje Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic are awaiting the Hague Tribunal’s decision on Wednesday on their appeal against their convictions for crimes against Bosniaks in western Herzegovina and central Bosnia as part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at establishing a ‘Greater Croatia’.

Under the first-instance verdict in 2013, the Tribunal sentenced Prlic, wartime prime minister of the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, to 25 years in prison, while the unrecognised Herzeg-Bosnia’s defence minister, Bruno Stojic, the chief of the Main Headquarters of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, Slobodan Praljak, and the HVO’s deputy commander, Milivoje Petkovic, were given 20 years each.

Valentin Coric, the former commander of the HVO military police, was sentenced to 16 years, while the president of Herzeg-Bosnia’s Commission for the Exchange of Prisoners, Berislav Pusic, got ten years in prison. All of them filed appeals.

During a hearing on their appeals in March this year, they asked the court to acquit them of all the charges or reduce their sentences, and denied the existence of a joint criminal enterprise against Bosniaks.

All of them except Praljak expressed regrets for victims of the war, but insisted that Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina had to defend themselves from a Serb and Bosniak “aggression” or “leave”, as Prlic said.

The prosecution meanwhile requested longer imprisonment sentences for all the defendants.

Prlic and the others were found guilty of implementing a campaign of persecution of Bosniaks in eight municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the spring of 1993 to the spring of 1994 by committing murders, rape, deportations, inhumane treatment, unlawful detention, inhumane acts, the destruction and confiscation of property, the wanton destruction of villages, towns and cultural and religious buildings, forcing people to do hard labour and terrorising civilians.

The verdict classified their deeds as crimes against humanity, violationa of laws and customs of war and grave violations of the Geneva Convention in the Bosnian municipalities of Mostar, Capljina, Ljubuski, Prozor, Stolac, Vares, Gornji Vakuf and Jablanica.

The Tribunal determined that the crimes were committed within a joint criminal enterprise aimed at establishing “a Croat entity, whose borders would partially follow the borders of the Croatian republic from 1939” through the forcible and permanent deportation of the Bosniak population from eight municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to the verdict, the goal of the establishment of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia entity was “to reunite the Croatian people”. Their joint criminal plan intended to either unite of Herzeg-Bosnia with Croatia if Bosnia and Herzegovina fell apart or remain to within Bosnia and Herzegovina “while retaining close ties to Croatia” otherwise.

The prosecutors described this the plan as the establishment of a “Greater Croatia”.

The Tribunal found that the then Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, participated in devising the criminal enterprise and that the Croatian Army participated in executing the plan as well as the HVO, Herzeg-Bosnia’s military force.

Mostar’s historic Old Bridge destroyed

The Old Bridge was rebuilt after the war. Photo: Flickr.

Besides Croatian President Tudjman and the defendants, the verdict also mentioned the then defence minister of Croatia, Gojko Susak, and chief of the General Headquarters of the Croatian Army, Janko Bobetko, as participants in the joint enterprise, saying they “coordinated their activities” with the defendants.

According to the verdict, in the spring of 1993, the HVO attacked Bosniaks in western Herzegovina and central Bosnia, unlawfully detaining civilians in inhumane conditions in several detention camps, where men were abused and killed, while women were subjected to sexual violence.

The verdict also said that the HVO deported Bosniaks to territories controlled by the Bosnian Army or to third countries, most often via Croatia.

Bosnian Croat forces “systematically deported Muslims from the western part of Mostar to the eastern part of the town, holding men in the Heliodrom detention camp, where they were subjected to abuse, while some were even killed”, it said.

The HVO also mistreated Muslims in Vojno, Dretelj and Gabela detention camps in western Herzegovina, it added.

When the detention camps were dissolved in 1994, Bosniaks were forced to sign a document saying they would either leave to third countries or territory controlled by the Bosnian Army.

The verdict also said that the eastern part of Mostar was “under siege” from the HVO from the summer of 1993 to April 1994.

The HVO shelled the town intensively, killing civilians, while Croat forces deprived the Bosniak population of humanitarian aid.

It also stands accused of destroying Mostar’s famous 16th Century, Ottoman-built Old Bridge. The verdict said that on November 8, 1993, “an HVO tank opened fire at the Old Bridge in Mostar for the whole day, so the bridge fell on the following day”.

The verdict said that a particularly brutal crime committed by the HVO was the killing of 36 people, including three children, in the village of Stupni Do in the Vares municipality on October 23, 1993.

Verdict ‘unfair and too harsh’

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Photo: ICTY.

The men’s defence teams argued that the sentences were “unfair and too harsh”.

They agreed with the allegations made by defendant Praljak, who said the crimes that were committed and the suffering of the Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the consequence of the collapse of the state following “the Serb aggression” and “chaos” that was intensified by Bosniak politicians’ alleged betrayals and “Bosnian aggression against Croats”.

Defendant Prlic said the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia was “the foundation for building the future Bosnia and Herzegovina, not for its disintegration”.

Contrary to the allegations in the verdict, in Prlic’s opinion, president Tudjman “continuously… supported the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and was “against a change of borders”.

“He turned down the annexation of Herzegovina, which was offered to him by [wartime Bosnian President] Alija Izetbegovic,” Prlic said.

Prlic also argued that the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia did not bring the sovereignty and independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina into question, because it had neither had the form of a state nor aspired to be one.  

Prlic rejected suggestions that he had control over the HVO’s activities, claiming he had never been in “the chain of command”. 

He also said that the Herzeg-Bosnia authorities had no control over the detention centres.

He argued that Bosniak civilians had not been deported, but had left for their own protection, and all of them were allowed to come back.

‘Too many Muslims and Serbs’

Former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Photo: Beta.

The prosecutors argued in court that Prlic “played a key role in relations with [Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman, with whom he shared criminal intent”.

They quoted the words of the then US ambassador to Zagreb, Peter Galbraith, who testified at the trial that Tudjman believed that important parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina should become part of Croatia.

The prosecution alleges that Tudjman said in the presence of Prlic in autumn 1992 that “the Croat entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina must not have too many Muslims and Serbs”.

To prove that ethnic cleansing took place in the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, the prosecutors said that 8,000 Bosniaks had lived in the municipality of Stolac before the war, but none remained in the town in autumn 1993.

The prosecutors quoted from the wartime diary of Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, in which he mentioned having spoken to Prlic, Praljak and other Herzeg-Bosnia leaders in 1993 about “the division of Bosnia” and the creation of a territory to which “Muslims could go”.

They insisted they had proved that Tudjman’s administration was directly involved in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in many crimes against Bosniaks.

According to a transcript of a conversation involving Tudjman, he ordered the Croatian Army to “defend the positions which we have conquered” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We must achieve more favourable borders for the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia,” he also said.

The prosecutors alleged that these words were proof that Tudjman’s administration, through the Croatian Army, had command and control over the Bosnian Croat forces which committed crimes against Bosniaks.

But Stojic’s defence called Tudjman “a great humanitarian” who “never encouraged an intervention by Croatia in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

According to the defence, Croatia’s role in the Bosnian war has not been proved, while the HVO was a result of “a legitimate need by all people to defend themselves from Serb aggression”.

Praljak’s defence argued that Tudjman did not want Bosnia and Herzegovina to be divided up and had “always objected to it”.  

“Croatia did not participate in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” his defence also said.

Praljak further insisted that that it had not been proved that he was guilty of the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar and terror against Bosniaks who had been deported from the western to the eastern part of Mostar. According to his defence, Praljak did not know about the massacre in Stupni Do either.

The prosecutors responded by saying that “Croatia was an occupying force” in Bosnia and Herzegovina “through the HVO”, while Praljak was one of “the most important participants” in the relationship between Zagreb and Herzeg-Bosnia, because he was simultaneously a Croatian Army general, Croatia’s assistant defence minister, Tudjman’s advisor and the commander of the Bosnian Croat forces.

Tudjman considered Praljak “his surrogate”, the defence claimed, Praljak himself confirmed having “implemented the politics of the state of Croatia”.

According to the prosecutors’ allegations, Praljak “directly participated” in operations in which crimes were committed, including the destruction of Mostar’s Old Bridge.

Meanwhile defendant Milivoje Petkovic’s defence claimed that the HVO did not attack the civilian population, but defended itself from Bosnian attacks.

Petkovic did not have a role in detention camps like Dretelj and Gabela, his lawyer said, and was not responsible for shelling and sniping attacks on the eastern part of Mostar, the destruction of the Old Bridge and the massacre in Stupno Do.

The prosecution countered by saying that Petkovic commanded HVO units which committed numerous crimes in all eight municipalities in the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, and exercised full control over them.

Bosniak civilians had no choice but to leave these municipalities because “Petkovic’s troops had previously burnt down the villages”, according to the verdict.

Prosecutors also insisted that Petkovic ordered the attack on the Old Bridge in November 1993 and concealed the perpetrators of the massacre in Stupni Do.

‘A paper-pushing clerk’

Valentin Coric in court. Photo: ICTY.

The prosecutors claimed in court that the HVO’s former military police commander, Valentin Coric, was “the architect of a network of brutal detention camps” in which grave crimes were committed and “one of the key players in the deportation of an industrial scale”.

Coric’s units forcibly evicted Bosniak civilians, detained them in detention camps, tortured, killed, sexually abused, forced them to do hard labour on the frontlines and persecuted them, according to the prosecution.

But Coric’s lawyer insisted that he was not responsible for military operations, even when military police forces participated in them. He “removed” perpetrators of crimes from military police units and filed criminal reports about them the lawyer added.

The lawyer also claimed in court that the crimes committed in Gornji Vakuf, the Heliodrom detention camp or Mostar were “isolated local incidents” and that the victims were “collateral damage in the conflict”.

Defendant Berislav Pusic too claimed he had not had any role in the detention centres. As president of the Commission for Detention Centres and the Exchange of Prisoners, Pusic was “a clerk who issued documents”, and did not make any decisions, his defence argued.

But the prosecutors rejected this claim, saying he had played an important role in the persecution of Bosniaks.  

The first-instance verdict also said that Pusic sent detainees to frontlines to do forced labour; many of them were killed.

The trial of the six men began in April 2006. The first instance verdict, which was handed down in March 2013, is the longest in the history of the Tribunal, running to 2,620 pages.

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