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In spite of the acquittal of General Gotovina, the omission of crimes committed in Croatia from the Mladić indictment is a blot on the tribunal’s record in the country.
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), failed to indict Ratko Mladić for war crimes in Croatia, choosing instead to focus exclusively on events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the omission further undermined the already tarnished reputation of the international court in Croatia.
Admittedly, since the court in November 2012 - to the surprise of many - acquitted the two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, its reputation has been partly restored in Croatian eyes. In first-instance verdicts issued in 2011, the court jailed Gotovina and Markac for 24 and 18 years respectively, so the dramatic overturning of the verdicts was met with euphoria in Croatia.
However, concerning the matter of Ratko Mladić, following his arrest, Croats expected the tribunal to expand the indictment to include crimes committed in Croatia, especially the 1991 mass murder in Škrabnja, Dalmatia, where 84 civilians and prisoners of war perished.
The number of fatalities in Škrabnja made it the second gravest crime committed by Serbian forces during the war in Croatia after the killing of more than 200 prisoners in Ovčara, near Vukovar, on November 20, 1991.
Court proceedings launched in Croatia against Mladić for this and other alleged crimes were never concluded.
This is because, at the request of the international community, Croatia suspended conducting trials for war crimes in absentia. Zagreb did so in order to adjust its judicial procedures to EU standards after the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) lost the parliamentary election in 2000.
It was also widely believed that The Hague tribunal would assume the responsibility of hearing these cases during Mladić’s trial.
Therefore, both the public and the government reacted angrily when Serge Brammertz, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, confirmed on June 1, 2011 that the tribunal prosecution did not intend to expand the indictment to cover Croatia.
Croatian political parties blamed each other for this omission, while the victims of war accused the entire political class of incompetence and disregard for their suffering.
"It is unfortunate that Ratko Mladić will not be sentenced [for war crimes committed in Croatia] and that Croatia was not in the indictment at all," Marko Miljanić, a wartime commander of Croatian troops in Škabrnja, said on 16th of May 2012, just a day after the Mladić trial started in The Hague.
Mladić's name is linked to the most serious war crimes Serbian forces and the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) committed in southern and central Croatia between 1991 and 1992.
From June 1991 to May 12, 1992, Mladić commanded the JNA's 9th Corps in Knin, then the political centre of a Croatian-Serb rebellion against the government in Zagreb.
Much of the worst fighting between Croatian and Serbian forces during the war in Croatia took place during that period, from mid-1991 onwards.
In July 1992, a district court in the city of Šibenik found Mladić and six others guilty of war crimes in the Šibenik area and in Knin and Sinj, two towns in the hinterland of Šibenik and Split. Mladić was sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia.
Mladić was sentenced in connection to the August 1991 attack on Kijevo and surrounding villages, the August to November 1991 assault on Sinj and surrounding villages, the August 1991 attack on Vrlika, the September 1991 attack on Maljkovo, Potravlje, Šatric and Dabar, the September to October 1991 attack on Sinj and the September 1991 assault on the Šibenik area.
Three years later, in December 1995, the county attorney in the city of Split indicted Mladić and three others for attempting to blow up the hydroelectric power plant at Peruča near Sinj.
According to the indictment: "From September 1991 until January 1993 they planned, and in January 1993 organised, the destruction of the dam and hydroelectric power plant at Peruča, with the aim of completely flooding civilian and economic facilities, thus endangering the population residing downstream from the dam and the river Cetina in Sinj, Trilj and Omiš."
In 1991 and 1992, the JNA laid explosives in the foundations of the dam at the hydroelectric power plant and denoted them in January 1993.
Concentrating on Bosnia
In response to a BIRN query lodged in September 2012 asking if Croatia’s prosecution service had ever formally requested that the ICTY expand the Mladić indictment to cover Croatia, the prosecution office forwarded the following written statement:
"The investigation of the crimes for which Ratko Mladić could be held responsible was directed primarily at the crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"This is reflected in the indictment from 1995, which was amended in 2002 and 2011."
The statement continues: "The Office of the Prosecution, at the same time, carried out investigations of other crimes committed in Croatia, covering the other high-level offenders [and suspects] who have also been processed and tried for serious violations of international humanitarian law."
Among others, the ICTY has indicted the following individuals for war crimes committed in Croatia: Slobodan Milosević, the former president of Serbia, Jovica Stanišić, former chief of state security, Milan Martić and Goran Hadžic, former presidents of the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina, and Milan Babić, former prime minister of Krajina.
Martić was found guilty on 12 June 2007 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, while Babić confessed his guilt in January 2004 and was, five months later, sentenced to a 13-year jail term.
In March 2006, Babić committed suicide in his prison cell in The Hague. Slobodan Milošević died in custody on March 11, 2006 before his trial concluded, while the trials of Stanišić and Hadžić are ongoing.
The dam was damaged but not destroyed. Therefore, the reservoir at Peruča did not overspill and the potentially catastrophic flooding of settlements downstream from the power plant was narrowly averted.
The charges relating to the Peruča dam never resulted in a court verdict because, as previously mentioned, by this time Croatia had stopped holding war crimes trials in absentia.
Under Mladić's command, Serbian paramilitary forces and the JNA captured Škabrnja village on November 18, 1991, and killed 58 Croat civilians and 26 members of the Croatian military.
In 1994, the Croatian judiciary indicted 26 people for the Škabrnja killings. Two direct participants, Zorana Banić and Jovan Badžoka, were arrested and jailed, while the others were sentenced in absentia. Zorana Banić was arrested in 2001 in Switzerland and served a four-year prison sentence. Jovan Badžoka was arrested in 1995 and was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison.
However, those who commanded the attack on Škabrnja never faced trial.
In February 2005, the county attorney in Zadar requested that two separate investigations be carried out into Mladić’s alleged role in the deaths of civilians and soldiers in Škabrnja and for artillery attacks on Zadar and its surroundings.
This investigation did not result in an indictment, again partly because of the decision to stop holding trials for war crimes in absentia.
Expecting that Mladić's responsibility for the crimes committed in Škabrnja would be taken on by The Hague tribunal, the State Attorney, DORH, in 1993 submitted copies of the case under the number T04/HRV - 0504, through the Croatian state’s Office for Cooperation with the International Court and International Criminal Courts.
Optimism that the ICTY would also try Mladić for crimes committed on Croatian soil increased following his arrest in Serbia in May 2011.
On the day of the arrest, May 26, 2011, Serge Brammertz, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, attended the annual conference of prosecutors from the former Yugoslavia on the Croatian island of Brijuni.
A day later, Croatian newspaper headlines proclaimed that The Hague would "also indict Mladić for crimes in Croatia".
Such headlines were based on one paragraph from a report published by the Croatian News Agency, Hina, about the meeting on Brijuni.
Quoting Brammertz, the news report read: "A few months ago, my office presented an amendment to extend the indictment to the judges for review. Now we are awaiting completion of the investigation in Belgrade and when Mladić is in The Hague, we will definitely consider the possibility of extending the indictment."
Based on this paragraph, the public believed that Mladić would now be made to answer for the crimes committed by the forces he led in Croatia. The announcement was also hailed by top officials in the Croatian government.
On June 28, two days after Brammertz's reported statement on Brijuni, Jadranka Kosor, the prime minister, said she "welcomed the announcement of Serge Brammertz… regarding an extension of the indictment against Ratko Mladić for crimes in Croatia.
"This is our request as well. We will also take some steps in this regard and we really expect it to happen," Kosor added.
President Ivo Josipović also expressed the hope that Mladić would be indicted for crimes committed in Croatia.
"Just remember the horrible crime in Škabrnja," he said. "I think there will be good will from the [ICTY] prosecutor's side for this."
But, on June 1, just four days after Mladić's arrest, Brammertz dashed those hopes.
At a press conference in The Hague, where he announced that Mladić was now in custody, Hina news agency quoted Brammertz as saying that his office "does not intend to expand the indictment against Mladić for atrocities in Croatia, including the massacre in Škabrnja".
The subsequent wave of anger gave some Croatian politicians a fresh opportunity to further undermine the ICTY’s reputation.
HDZ officials blazed the trail here, unsurprisingly, considering the HDZ ruled Croatia during the war, and the ICTY had prosecuted individuals for war crimes committed by Croat forces during the HDZ era.
Ivan Jarnjak, wartime interior minister and former vice-president of the HDZ, said Mladic's trial at The Hague would be "incomplete" if the indictment did not include crimes committed in Croatia.
"They are excusing him from some of the crimes that he [allegedly] committed, which means that, in Brammertz's opinion, we Croats are an inferior nation," he asserted on June 2.
"What Mladić [stands accused of doing] in the hinterland of Zadar and Šibenik, that is nothing, while they declare our liberation of our own territory as a joint criminal enterprise," Jarnjak added, referring to ICTY trials held in connection to Operation Oluja, (Storm), the 1995 army operation that crushed the newly-formed breakaway Serbian statelet - the Republic of Serbian Krajina (the RSK).
A disappointed Kosor announced on June 4 that she would "insist" on the expansion of the Mladić indictment.
Croatia would "send all collated documentation with a request that the ICTY’s chief prosecutor expand the indictment to Croatia", Kosor announced on Croatian television.
The government adopted this position on June 9, with Prime Minister Kosor remarking that it was disturbing "to recall the horrors and the massacre committed in Škabrnja and all the families from the Zadar area that are forever dressed in black".
The State Attorney’s Office responded to this by noting that it had already sent all the material gathered against Mladić to The Hague in 2003, via the Office for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal.
Meanwhile, the centre-left opposition, led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was forced to defend itself against HDZ accusations that it had failed to ensure Mladić was sentenced during its time in office from 2000 to 2003. The HDZ levied these accusations against the former SDP government, despite the fact it was fully aware that Croatia had stopped holding war crime trials in absentia, at the request of the international community.
Ingrid Antičevic-Marinović, an SDP parliamentarian from Zadar and a former justice minister, told the newspaper Vjesnik on June 2: "Today, it is easy to say we should have done it [but]…One needs to recall that in line with EU standards… we pledged not to hold trials in absentia.”
“Had we sentenced Mladić in absentia earlier, he could have got a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence at the time when he committed the crimes, while in The Hague, he could get 40 or 60 years or a life sentence," Antičevic-Marinović added.
"It was necessary to weigh these two options, holding a trial in absentia or waiting for The Hague, and that was a choice between Scylla and Charybdis."
Marking the 20th anniversary of the atrocities in Škabrnja on November 18, 2011, Marko Miljanić, the Croatian Army wartime commander of Škabrnja, compared the trial of the Croatian general, Ante Gotovina, to the trial of Mladić.
The Hague sentenced Gotovina in April 2011to 24 years in prison after finding him guilty of war crimes committed during and after the military operation Oluja. "They say that General Ante Gotovina shelled Knin too much, and I tell you that every day from October 1 to November 18, 1991, when Škabrnja fell, more shells fell during one day on Škabrnja, than on Knin, Gračac, Benkovac and Obrovac throughout 'Oluja'," Miljanić asserted.
"But while General Gotovina answers in The Hague for 'Oluja', Ratko Mladić does not answer for Škabrnja. Who is to blame?" he asked. "Our judiciary and the ones who run our politics and diplomatic relations are to blame."
Miljanić voiced the belief held by many in Croatia, that all governments and parties, without exception, are to blame for the failure to punish the highest-ranking commander of JNA troops responsible for Serbian war crimes in Croatia.
Miljanić reiterated his discontent at the start of the Mladić trial in The Hague in May.
"It is unfortunate that …Croatia is not in the indictment at all. I'm not talking just about Škabrnja… where about a hundred people were killed," Miljanić told the daily newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija on the day the trial began.
Few in Croatia today contest Miljanić's opinion on that issue.
But while the public feels betrayed, experts have viewed the decision to abandon plans to indict Mladić over events in Croatia in the context of the Hague court's imminent closure. The ICTY is due to close its doors on 1 July 2013, with only small “residual mechanisms” planned to finish ongoing trials.
Jadranka Sloković, a lawyer with experience of the workings of the tribunal, said the decision was "expected" as "the completion of the trial as soon as possible fits the 'exit strategy' of the Hague Tribunal.
"Since the indictment against Mladic was reduced from 16 to 11 counts, it was clear that no new events would be put in it," Sloković said.
According to her, the existing indictment is of "very questionable quality" because Mladić's role in Croatia is mentioned only in the introduction, with a few details and a brief reminder that he had commanded the JNA 9th Corps in Knin.
This article has been produced as a part of BIRN's book "Spotlight on Mladic: Villain or Celebrity"
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Key dates and events in the Bosnia war.
The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.