2017 in Review 26 Dec 17

Croatia: WWII Controversies and a General’s Suicide

A year in which the legacy of Croatia’s Nazi-allied World War II regime continued to cause controversy erupted into political turmoil when Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak committed suicide in The Hague.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Slobodan Praljak in court. Photo: ICTY.

The year in Croatia came to a close with an outburst of discontent after the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY convicted six former Bosnian Croat officials of committing crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war and implicated Croatia’s former president.

On November 29, the ICTY upheld the first-instance verdict convicting the six men, all former political or military officials from the self-proclaimed wartime Croat-led statelet of Herzeg-Bosnia, of a series of crimes against Bosniaks.

Jadranko Prlic was sentenced 25 years, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak and Milivoj Petkovic 20 each, while Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic received 16 and ten years in prison respectively.

But in a dramatic turn of events, after being declared guilty in the courtroom, Praljak announced: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. With indignation, I reject your verdict.”

He then swallowed some liquid from a small bottle which turned out to be poison, and died in a nearby hospital in The Hague. Both the Dutch police and the Tribunal have opened investigations into how it was possible for him to commit suicide.

Thousands commemorate Praljak after suicide

Memorial commemoration for Praljak in Zagreb. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN.

Praljak’s suicide took the headlines instead of the crimes of which the six men were convicted, in what some observers described as a “hijacking of justice”.

Croatia’s main daily newspapers, Jutarnji list and Vecernji list, printed almost identical front pages, with photographs of Praljak taking the poison.

Senior Croatian officials expressed remorse over his death, while Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called the verdict a “deep moral injustice to the six who were convicted”.

Officials also expressed anger about the fact that the verdict described Croatia’s 1990s President Franjo Tudjman as the head of a joint criminal enterprise that sought “unification of the Croatian people” by taking some of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Plenkovic insisted that such claims were “in contradiction with the historical truth and facts” and said that that his government would “use all legal mechanisms available” to counter parts of the verdict.

However a few days later, he softened his stance, claiming that he never said that Croatia didn’t respect the verdict, but only that it “doesn’t agree about certain parts of it”.

At a parliamentary session the day after the verdict, MPs held a minute of silence for all victims of the war in Bosnia and for Praljak’s suicide, although the majority of the opposition boycotted this.

Several thousand people, including two Croatian ministers, MPs, generals and convicted war criminals, also attended a ceremony at Zagreb’s biggest concert hall to commemorate Praljak.

WWII fascist legacy still haunts society

The disputed plaque with the 'Za dom spremni' slogan in the Jasenovac municipality. Photo: Tamara Opacic.

The year was also marked by the ongoing controversy over a plaque inscribed with the salute ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’), coined by the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement.

An association of the former fighters of the Croatian Defence Forces, HOS, a 1990s far-right paramilitary unit which was integrated into the regular Croatian Army in 1992, installed the plaque dedicated to its fallen combatants in the municipality of Jasenovac, near the site of what was the biggest Ustasa concentration camp.

In the Jasenovac concentration camp, the Ustasa killed over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists between 1941 and 1945.

The dispute was complicated by the fact that the association had all the necessary permits for installing the plaque, while ‘Za dom spremni’ is part of the HOS’s officially-recognised coat of arms.

As the dispute threatened to topple the fragile coalition government led by the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, Plenkovic announced the establishment of a special expert council to address the legacies of both the Ustasa and the Yugoslav Communist regimes and formulate proposals on how to better regulate the use of their symbols.

In March, the government set up the Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes, which from the outset was accused of not having a clear agenda or of not functioning properly.

Before the Council could come up with any solutions, the disputed plaque was removed from Jasenovac in September.

Critics have repeatedly accused Croatia of doing little to crack down on people who downplay World War II atrocities.

‘Captain Dragan’ jailed after legal marathon

Dragan Vasiljkovic, known in the former Yugoslavia as Captain Dragan, in court in Split. Photo: Beta/AP.

After a legal saga stretching back to 2004, when Croatia first issued a warrant for Dragan Vasiljkovic’s arrest, the wartime Serb paramilitary leader was convicted of war crimes at Split County Court in September and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The conviction of Vasiljkovic followed a long legal battle against extradition by the man who is popularly known in the Balkans as ‘Captain Dragan’ and was once the star of his own TV show in Serbia in the 1990s.

At the time of his arrest, however, he was working as a golf instructor under the name Daniel Snedden in his adopted homeland of Australia.

Sixty-two-year-old Vasiljkovic was found guilty of responsibility for the beating and abuse of imprisoned Croatian soldiers and policemen in June and July 1991 at the fortress in Knin.

He claimed during his trial that he had been subjected to “an oppressive fascist process”, insisting that his prosecution was politically motivated.

His case captured headlines in Croatia, Serbia and Australia, and his lawyers have announced an appeal.

Another long-running legal saga returned to the courtroom in October with the opening of the retrial of Branimir Glavas, a Croatian general from the 1990s war who is also an MP.

Back in 2010, the Croatian Supreme Court found Glavas, the commander of the defence forces in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek in 1991-92, guilty of ordering the executions of seven mostly Croatian Serb civilians in 1991.

However, his final verdict was quashed in January 2015 by the Constitutional Court, which argued that the wrong protocols of the Geneva Convention had been used in his trial.

The Supreme Court quashed the first-instance verdict from Zagreb County Court for the same reasons, ordering a retrial.

At the first hearing in the retrial at Zagreb County Court in October, Glavas again pleaded not guilty

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