Feature 04 Dec 17

Slobodan Praljak: Defending Himself by Distorting History

In an 800-page document sent to BIRN several months before his public suicide, Bosnian Croat wartime general Slobodan Praljak tried to rewrite history and dispute court-established facts to absolve himself of crimes.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Slobodan Praljak, near the frontline in Sunja, central Croatia, September 1991. Photo: Beta.

“Who am I and what am I?”

Former Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak introduces himself ironically in his 800-page ‘handbook’ entitled ‘How to Become a Joint Criminal’, which his company sent to BIRN in March this year as he appealed against conviction.

In the introduction, Praljak describes himself as “an average ‘nationalist’ from Croatia, a ‘Croatian nationalist’” - and a likely candidate to be convicted of being part of a joint criminal enterprise.

And indeed he was convicted, just before he committed suicide last Wednesday in the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

Praljak was sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity, committed against Bosniak civilians and prisoners of war during the 1990s conflict.

The ICTY established that these crimes included the forced deportations of Bosniaks from the Croat-led Croatian Community (later Republic) of Herzeg-Bosnia, an unrecognised wartime Croat statelet in Bosnia and Herzegovina - as well as detentions, murders, torture, the infliction of terror on civilians and the use of detainees as slave labour and as human shields.

The subtitle of Praljak’s book, which was published on his website and sent to BIRN in both Croatian and English-language versions, adds ironically: “With instruction on how to think (mens rea) and how to act (actus reus) in order to be declared a member of a joint criminal enterprise at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.”

The ICTY on Wednesday found him responsible for committing his crimes as part of a joint criminal enterprise headed by Croatia’s 1990s President Franjo Tudjman.

After hearing that he was convicted, Praljak swallowed poison, and died later that day.

The book itself is an extended stream of consciousness, presenting Praljak’s own perception of historical truth, trying to whitewash crimes that were committed and shift the focus away from facts established by the UN court - away from himself and the actions for which he was found responsible.

Praljak starts his book decades before the 1990s conflicts, offering his interpretation of World War II history, claiming that some members of the anti-fascist bloc – the USSR and communist Yugoslavia – were not actually anti-fascist. According to his definition, communism is just a subset of fascism.

In his condemnation of Yugoslavia and its leader-for-life Josip Broz Tito, Praljak offers scientifically-unproven figures on the amount of deaths that the Communist regime caused by killing fascist collaborators and civilians.

He also presents a list of Croats who were confirmed or alleged victims of the Yugoslav State Security Service, better known by its notorious acronym UDBA.

But what he does not mention is that his father, Mirko Praljak, was a distinguished member of the Department for People’s Protection, OZNA – which fought against renegade fascist forces in Partisan-controlled areas – and an UDBA official in the Bosnian town of Mostar.

Praljak goes on to write about the 1990s, giving his own take on the events that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He focuses on the role of Yugoslavia, or more precisely Serbia and its leader Slobodan Milosevic, when he talks about who was responsible.

He also takes a stab at the international community as he criticises the UN Security Council’s Resolution 713 from September 1991, in which it expressed “deep concern” at the fighting in Yugoslavia and demanded a full embargo on arms.

Praljak argues this was aimed at stopping Croatia getting weapons in the middle of its war against rebel Croatian Serbs, who were being helped by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

In a passage intended to sarcastically explain the national characteristics that lay behind the politics of the UN resolution, he writes in the English translation of the book:

“Well - Russians and Serbs show their affection publicly, French like Serbs ([French President] Francois Mitterrand expresses this publicly), well, ok, English don’t like anyone, let alone Croats, Yugoslavia is liked by everyone, but Americans, Americans, Americans… John Ford and John Wayne must be turning in their graves from all this battle righteousness.”

Presenting his interpretation of the war, Praljak offers scores of maps, showing different troops and forces, attacks and counterattacks.

He includes a redrawn map of the United States which has 26 per cent of its territory occupied by invaders from Mexico, Cuba and the Atlantic – corresponding to the same amount of Croatian territory that was occupied by Serbs in 1991.

From Praljak's book, a simulation of a 26 per cent occupation of US territory - a parallel to Croatia in 1991.

Praljak insists that Croatia played a positive role in the Yugoslav wars, saying that it was one of the first to recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He also offers graphs and tables of data showing Croatia’s humanitarian aid to Bosnia, and the number of refugees or wounded people that Croatia accepted from Bosnia.

However, his book does not mention the fact that the Bosnian Croat military force – the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, whose main headquarters he commanded – blocked humanitarian aid from coming to Bosniaks, particularly in eastern Mostar.

Praljak also fails to specify how Croatia financed the HVO during its conflict with the Bosniak-led Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, at a time when large-scale crimes were committed. He further fails to specify that he was on Croatia’s payroll at the same time, as the ICTY established.

In an attempt to defend both himself and Croatia, he omits to describe the role of the most senior Croatian officials in actions that led to crimes, and his participation in meetings at which these actions were discussed, as the ICTY also established.

“The Chamber notes that during these meetings, Slobodan Praljak was not only informed of the policy championed by Croatia vis-à-vis Herzeg-Bosnia but also championed it himself and contributed to the discussions,” said the ICTY’s first-instance verdict in his trial in 2013.

In the book, Praljak writes extensively about the role of the wartime Bosnian presidency’s Bosniak representative, Alija Izetbegovic. He refers to Izetbegovic as a “cheater”, presenting him as one of the leaders most responsible for the conflict, accusing him of betraying agreements and constantly plotting – even with the Serbs.

A significant portion of his book deals with Bosniak crimes against Croats – some which are already documented, although others are not.

He focuses a lot on the Mujahideen, foreign Islamic fighters who came to fight on the Bosniak side; some of whom were responsible for a series of atrocities, according to a Bosnian state prosecution indictment.

Praljak finishes his book with a presentation about “Human behaviour in civil unrest and war”, citing the examples of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the 1977 New York electricity blackout, the 2004 killing of the Dutch author Theo van Gogh, the 2005 riots in Paris and the 1968 My Lai Massacre, when the US Army killed over 300 Vietnamese civilians.

These examples, he suggests, show that the police and the armed forces are unprepared and unready to react appropriately to unrest and natural disasters, even in peaceable countries.

The Ma Lai massacre demonstrates how “even a professional army can easily go out of control and conduct a massacre without orders of superiors”, Praljak concludes - as if he was in court, and giving his own final statement to the judges.

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