ICTY And Vicious Political Battles Against Survival Of Croats In Bosnia And Herzegovina

From left: Jadranko Prlic, Milivoj Petkovic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Berislav Pusic, Valentin Coric
Photo: AFP

If there was ever a more revealing moment of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s putrid Dayton Peace Accords lined political stage, it appears to be now. Whether staged, coincidental or not, the current boiling-point political crisis has intensified in the very month of ICTY Appeal Chamber hearing for six Herceg-Bosna Croats convicted for war crimes in 2013. In the whirlpool of the current political crisis in BiH that boils one day and simmers the next, the Croat leaders find themselves forced to balance between the needs of their own kin and the state they ostensibly represent (BiH). Despite their secessionist tendencies, the Serbs in BiH are riding this storm in costumes of some sort of champions of unity in times of twilight. Continuing the twilight zone-themed crisis, the Croats find themselves in an ‘unholy alliance’ with war-time enemy Serbs as they resist increasing Bosniak hegemony. A quarter of a century ago Bosniaks and Croats paraded the streets together, celebrating independence from Yugoslavia, fought against Serb aggressor together only to split into fighting against each other as the Bosniak hunger for supremacy grew vicious against Croats. Twenty-five years later, Croats are estranged in their own lands, Bosniaks are frustrated by their inability to govern despite their majority, while Serbs live on in a country they fought to divide.

 

It commenced on March 20th 2017 and it represents the last and biggest-ever case before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Appeals Chamber. The case concerns six high-level leaders of the Bosnian Croat wartime entity Herceg-Bosna and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). Jadranko Prlić, Bruno Stojić, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petković, Valentin Ćorić and Berislav Pušić were convicted by the Tribunal’s Trial Chamber on 29 May 2013 for crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions committed between 1992 and 1994. The Trial Judgement (appealed), issued on 29 May 2013, comprised over 2,600 pages, including separate and partially dissenting opinions by Judges Jean-Claude Antonetti and Stefan Trechsel.

With the appeal hearing now completed the Appeal Chamber judgment is expected November 2017. The judgment is particularly of interest and importance to Croatia as the 2013 Trial Chamber ruled that the “Herceg Bosna Six” (named above), together with Croatia’s leadership (including dr Franjo Tudjman) had participated in a joint criminal enterprise against Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) – all as part of some Greater Croatia expansion.

The Prlic et al. trial was one of the Tribunal’s largest and most complicated. Trial proceedings began on 26 April 2006. The Prosecution completed its case on 24 January 2008 after presenting the evidence of 249 witnesses, while the Defence cases commenced on 5 May 2008 and closed on 17 May 2010 after presentation of the evidence of 77 witnesses. The total number of trial days amounted to 465, with closing arguments heard between 7 February and 2 March 2011. The Trial Judgement, issued on 29 May 2013, comprises over 2,600 pages, including separate and partially dissenting opinions by Judges Antonetti and Stefan Trechsel.

 

Moving to present day Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), whether politically triggered by the ICTY Appeal hearing for the Herceg-Bosna Six, it is of relevance to note long-standing political crisis in BiH had almost reached a boiling point in March 2017, showing a dangerous, politically volatile reappearance of increased tensions between the three constitutional ethnic groups/people (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs). The Bosniak representative of the tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, submitted a request for revision of the ICJ’s (International Court of Justice) ruling on BiH’s suit against Serbia for genocide (which in essence said there was no genocide committed by Serbs in BiH even if, in the same breath, the court ruled that the mass killings in Srebrenica in 1995 constituted genocide), without approval of either the parliament or the Serbian and Croatian presidents. This created a new crisis in BiH that saw the Croat representative on BiH Presidency, Dragan Covic, caught in a crossfire between Bosniaks and Serbs, and faced with resurrected and intensified high-level threats by the Serbian Republic for indictments for war crimes of a number of Croatian generals and military operatives in the 1990’s war, spilling unrest and political fire into Croatia. This current political crisis is preceded by the volatile tensions between Sarajevo (BiH capital and capital of the Federation of BiH but also de jure capital of Serbian Republic) and Banja Luka (where the government of Serbian Republic entity sits) from last year when Serbian Republic unilaterally held a referendum on its own independence day. The BiH Constitutional Court and International High Representative Valentin Inzko declared the referendum a clear constitutional breach; nonetheless, long-standing President of Serbian Republic Milorad Dodik proceeded to celebrate a day that for many citizens of BiH marks the beginning of Serbian aggression on their country.

 

It almost goes without saying, agreement with Izetbegovic’s move for a review of ICJ decision on genocide would tantamount to an act of betrayal in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia, where the scars of Serb genocidal aggression have not been forgotten. Support of Izetbegovic’s move for ICJ decision, on the other hand, means that Bosnian and Croat aspirations for political parity would become even pricklier and Bosniak abuse of Croatian rights within the Federation of BiH would head in the way of deeper institutionalisation.

Nika Pinter
Croatian defence attorney
Photo: Screenshot ICTY Appeals Chamber March 2017

The ICTY Appeals Chamber judgment in the Herceg-Bosna Six case to be delivered in November 2017 will have enormous implications not only for BiH, for Croats in BiH and on stability in BiH but also for Croatia itself. Should the Appeal confirm the Trial Chamber finding that Croatian officials, including late president Franjo Tudjman, were members of a joint criminal enterprise, such a judgment would not only bring a stigma pointing to criminality of Croatia’s politics but also grave financial consequences for Croatia – said recently Nika Pinter, defence attorney for General Slobodan Praljak at ICTY Appeal Tribunal.

 

Pinter said that the past twenty years have seen the creation of a picture about Croats breaking up BiH with criminal goals implemented by aggression against BiH and committing crimes against Bosniaks in accordance with premeditated, joint criminal plan of joining part of BiH to Croatia.

 

And the evidence leads to a different conclusion – Pinter insists.

 

Those who are attacked, who defend themselves, cannot have a criminal plan.
With disappointment Pinter referred to the fact that Croatia’s political leaders have done nothing to stand up against the lies and twisted facts that have for years been spreading regarding Croatia’s role in the BiH war.

 

Outside courtrooms no one has made an effort to reply to the false claims and to insist on establishing and pointing out the truth via irrefutable evidence. There have been no arguments to refute the lies said about Croatia, its involvement in the BiH war and the alleged aggression against BiH, but instead, the space was left to the people, led by self-interests, who used half-truths in order to create a negative picture about Croatia – Pinter said, adding that all facts were available for use whether via witness testimonies, war documents, international negotiations documents, peace conferences.

 

Those in the service of lies wrote and spoke about the events and the relationship between Croatia and BiH but consciously ignored evidence of facts:
– that no government institution in BiH functioned normally and could not guarantee normal functioning because of the aggression by the Yugoslav Peoples Army;
– that BiH would not exist were it not for Croats who turned up at the March 1992 referendum and by doing so ensured international recognition of the independent BiH state;
– That upon the proposal from Croatia’s government and Croatian Parliament conclusions Franjo Tudjman made the decision to recognise the Republic of BiH in April 1992;
– that Croatia had literally made possible the survival of BiH through its unconditional and complete help to BiH in logistics, in humanitarian aid, militarily … (“were it not for Croatia, BiH would not have survived” – said Peter Galbright in his witness statement at the ICTY);
-that Croatia took in over 600,000 refugees and forcefully deported people from BiH and organised their care and shelter;
-that extraterritorial schools for Bosniaks were established in Croatia;
-that wounded members of the BiH Army as well as Bosniaks were treated in hospitals in Croatia;
-that Croatia had permitted all arms and weapons for BiH to be supplied via its own territory during the most intensive war conflict between HVO (Croatian Defence Council) and the BiH Army;
– that BiH had its military training centre for Bosniak soldiers situated in Croatia;
-that BiH Army had its military economic offices across Croatia;
– that during the whole time of the conflict the Headquarters of the supreme command of the Republic of BiH had its logistical centre in Croatia;
-that HVO and BiH Army were two armies of the same state – BiH, and that Army of BiH was not the only legal army in Bosnia and Herzegovina;
-that officers of the HV (Croatian Army) – Muslims, went across to the Army of BiH, while freezing and retaining all rights within the HV, just as the HV officers did who went across into the HVO;
-Never in the history of war conflicts have people, like Croats have, helped other people – like Bosniaks/Muslims – even when the latter turned its army – Army of BiH – against Croats – HVO – in BiH;
-The Croatian Republic of Herceg Bosna was created in September 1992 as a result of negotiations between all three sides in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the international representatives (Owen and Stotenberg);
-the official representatives of Herceg Bosna were present at all international negotiations together with the other two constitutional people – Serbs and Bosniaks;

 

The analysis of documents from the peace negotiations, said Pinter, shows the facts that Croats from BiH, along with dr Franjo Tudjman’s participation, which participation was insisted upon by the international representatives and communities, had accepted all proposals for peaceful solutions to the internal organisation of BiH, while Bosniaks, in accordance with their own plan for the creation of civil state “one man – one voice”, in which the constitutionality of the Croatian people would be lost, had rejected those proposals or refused to sign them, or had not acted in accordance with agreements.

 

Mujahedeen had brought in radical Islam and elements of religious war as well as contributing significantly to the idea of attacking existing allies – Croats. To claim that Mujahedeen were a propaganda effort raised by BiH Croats in order to force Croats from Central Bosnia to leave the areas in which they had lived for centuries, even if real danger from them was never a threat, is incomprehensible and unfounded as well as malicious, and regretfully, and the claim has today been disproved. Today, we are witnesses of not only the presence of a radical Islam current in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a judicial war against Croats through the processing of commanders and members of HVO without foundations based on facts for the indictments and without the elements necessary for criminal responsibility.

 

On the other hand, the Army of BiH attacks against HVO and Croats, as well as against the areas in which they lived, and consequences of those attacks have never been processed nor have they been talked about. Massive and horrible crimes. The war conflicts were most fatal for Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Exact data from the 2013 census without a doubt shows that in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina Croats were the biggest victims, not because of the Herceg-Bosna politics, dr Franjo Tudjman and Gojko Susak, as the “Six” in the Hague, but because of the Yugoslav Peoples Army and offensive operations by the Army of BiH. If Croats are victims, and they are, then the claim that the creation of Herceg-Bosna was directed against the Bosniak people, said Pinter.

 

While the ICTY Prosecutor is seeking increased sentences for the Herce-Bosna Six from the Appeals Chamber, the defence seeks acquittal of all charges, or a retrial. The acquittal or retrial are sought on basis of wrong conclusions by the Trial Chamber regarding the existence of a joint criminal enterprise and the participation in the same by the Herceg-Bosna Six. Ina Vukic

Nika Pinter – General Slobodan Praljak’s Angel

Nika Pinter (R) and Ina Vukic
March 2017
Photo: Ina Vukic

A few days into my visit to my Croatian homeland I could not have wished for a better meeting than being a part of celebrating the recognition of the work and dedication to justice and truth by a remarkable Croatian woman and attorney at law Nika Pinter. Nika Pinter was awarded the 2017 Croatian Women’s Network Award for  Leadership and Innovation.

 

However,  the most amazing and heart-filling professional undertaking of Pinter’s current pursuits and those of the recent past lies in her dedication to Croatian truth and the defence in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague of  Croatian General from Bosnia and Herzegovina Slobodan Praljak, whose indictment for alleged war crimes, now on Appeal in The Hague, falls into the group of indictments  also known as “Herceg-Bosnia Six”. The Hague Appeals Chamber will commence hearing the appeal on 20th March 2017 and Nika Pinter will be there armed with the truth and arguments that hopefully will blow the Trial Chamber’s guilty vedict out of the water. The truth and justice must win in the end despite the false and vitriolic allegation of war crimes against Praljak and his five co-accused in The Hague. Truth and we must keep a positive a hopeful outlook just as it was in the cases against the Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina and Malden Markac who were acquitted in 2012 of war crimes they were indicted for by the ahague a prosecutor.

 

As many will remember the ICTY 2013 Trial Chamber sentenced the six Bosnia and Herzegovina Croats to prison sentences ranging from ten to twenty five years for crimes against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina committed as part of a joint criminal enterprise. The six are jadranko Prljic, Bruno Stojic, Milivoj Petkovic, Slobodan Praljak, Valentin Coric. and Berislav Pusic.

 

The Trial Chamber concluded, with a dissenting opinion of Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, that the conflict between HVO (Croatian defence council) and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993-1994 was an international conflict and that most crimes against the Muslim population of Herceg Bosnia which the accused are charged with were committed as part of joint criminal enterprise that also involved a part of Croatian political and military leadership including Franjo Tudjman.

 

According to the Trial Chamber ‘s colourful imagination the implementation, the purpose of the said joint criminal enterprise was to establish a Croatian entity in the boundaries of the 1939 Croatian Banovina and eventually annexe that territory to Croatia in case Bosnia and Herzegovina disintegrated.

 

Mid-March 2016, Croatia submitted an application to be granted the status of an amicus curiae and join in appeals proceedings in the case at the ICTY in which the highest Croatian officials – former President Franjo Tudjman, former Defence Minister Gojko Susak, and former Croatian Army Chief-of-Staff Janko Bobetko – were declared, in a non-final verdict in the case, to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at ethnically cleaning parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

The trial judgement delivered in 2013 found that the three, now deceased, Croatian officials devised and implemented an alleged criminal enterprise with the aim of changing the ethnic make-up of the territories claimed to form part of the Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna by allegedly directing and coordinating events on the ground to commit the crimes which resulted from a a plan to remove the Muslim population from that area.

 

In its request Croatia noted that it wishes to be granted status amicus curiae for two reasons. Firstly because the trial chamber, in its judgement written on more than two thousand pages, did not cite a single piece of evidence that would corroborate the conclusion that Tudjman, Susak and Bobetko committed those crimes or intended for them to be committed and secondly, because by concluding that they were members of a criminal enterprise the trial chamber violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

In its request Croatia asked to be allowed to “file this amicus curiae brief and appear as amicus curiae in these proceedings” because it believes that it would be “desirable” as it would “assist [the Appeals Chamber] in the proper determination of the case.”

In its response dated March 31, ICTY prosecutors objected to Croatia’s request.

It is clear to all involved and all that follow this case that the case itself is difficult and complex particularly given the  frequently encountered conclusions by the prosecution and Trial Chamber judges that point to a utilisation of political analyses rather than hard evidence.

 

Let’s mark the coming days to 20th March and beyond to the moments of Appeal Chamber deliberations with prayers for the Croatian six from Heceg Bosna and their acquittal. Good luck Nika and all the Croatian defence team and hopefully Croatia itself will reignite its unconditional support for these brave and heroic warriors for Croatian freedom. Ina Vukic

 

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