Analysis 17 Mar 17

Croatia Hopes for Exoneration in Bosnia War Crimes Appeal

Croatia is hoping that it will be exonerated of any wrongdoing in wartime Bosnia and Herzegovina during appeals in The Hague against the war crimes convictions of six former Bosnian Croat leaders.

Dragana Erjavec BIRN Sarajevo
The Hague Tribunal courtroom. Photo: ICTY.

In the appeals hearings that start on Monday, defence lawyers for the six former high-ranking officials of the Bosnian Croat wartime statelet of Herzeg-Bosna will try to prove that the men were not involved in any joint criminal enterprise with the political and military leadership of Croatia.

Croatia argues that it had no involvement in war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the first-instance verdict handed down by the UN court in The Hague accused some of Zagreb’s highest wartime officials, including President Franjo Tudjman, of being complicit in the six men’s offences.

The prosecution will meanwhile attempt to convince the judges to almost double the sentences, which amounted to a total of 111 years in the original verdict in May 2013.

In that verdict, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoje Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic guilty of taking part in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at forcibly removing Bosniaks from territories under Bosnian Croat control during wartime in an attempt to create a ‘Greater Croatia’.

The court during the 2013 verdict. Photo: ICTY.

The six former senior leaders of the short-lived Herzeg-Bosna statelet were convicted of involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murders, rape, sexual assault, the destruction of property and the deportation of Bosniaks in 1993-94.

All six held senior political or military roles from 1992 to 1994 - Prlic was prime minister of the Herzeg-Bosna Croatian Community, Stojic was a military chief with the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, while Praljak was a senior Croatian Army officer, assistant Croatian defence minister, and later the commander of the Croatian Army’s main headquarters.

Documenta - Centre for Dealing with the Past, an NGO from Zagreb, said that if the defence could successfully refute the existence of a joint criminal enterprise, it would lead to reductions in the six men’s sentences.

But crucially, it could defuse accusations that the Croatian political and military leadership was involved in the Bosnian war.

“These proceedings are important from the point of view of the state,” explained Jelena Djokic-Jovic, a legal advisor at Documenta.

According to the first-instance verdict, the six men participated in the joint criminal enterprise together with Croatia President Franjo Tudjman, Defence Minister Gojko Susak and Croatian Army general Janko Bobetko. All three of them are now dead.

Franjo Tudjman. Photo: Croatian Presidency.

“The conflict between the Croatian Defence Council and the Bosnian Army had an international character, since Croatia exercised operational control over the Croatian Defence Council [which fought in Bosnia],” said judge Jean Claude Antonetti.

After the first-instance verdict was handed down, Croatia asked to be involved in the appeals procedure in order to refute the court’s conclusions about the role of Tudjman, Susak and Bobetko.

Zagreb asked to be given ‘friend of the court’ (amicus curiae) status in the case.

The status would have allowed Croatia to present testimony or other information without being on trial itself, which Zagreb officials saw as an opportunity to prove the innocence of Tudjman, Susak and Bobetko.

Croatian justice minister Ante Sprlje argued last year that the Hague prosecution “failed to present any evidence that they ever intended to commit crimes” against Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Djokic-Jovic said that if Tudjman, Susak and Bobetko were still alive, separate cases would be launched against them in order to determine whether they were responsible.

As she noted, “the Hague Tribunal does not actually try countries, but individuals”.

“The responsibility of the state cannot be determined on the basis of this verdict. On the other hand, it is very important for crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were a pattern of behaviour in Herzeg-Bosna in 1992 and 1993, to be presented to the public,” she said.

Croatia’s request for ‘friend of the court’ status was rejected by the Tribunal.

Hague Tribunal president Carmel Agius said in the decision that “Tudjman, Susak and Bobetko are not accused in this case”.

Mentioning them in the verdict, Agius explained, did not mean that the court accused Croatia of having any responsibility for the crimes.

The Tribunal “does not have jurisdiction to render conclusions on responsibilities of a state”, he underlined.

As well as the defence appeals, the Hague prosecution also appealed against the verdict because it believes that the six men should be given longer prison sentences.

Under the first-instance verdict, Prlic was jailed for 25 years, Stojic, Praljak and Petkovic for 20 years each, Coric for 16 years and Pusic for ten years.

Slavo Kukic, a professor at the University of Mostar, said the outcome of the appeal was of huge importance, not only for Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but for Croatia itself, which wants to show that it came out of the Bosnian war with ‘clean hands’.

“I think it is important to determine the role of Croatia in this whole story, as well as in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, irrespective of what that role was,” Kukic said.

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