Ante Gotovina’s defense counsel contested the credibility of Mikhail Ermolaev claims that the shelling of Knin was ’unprecedented’ and that 13,600 Serbian houses were destroyed during and after Operation Storm in the summer of 1995

Mikhail Ermolaev, witness in the Gotovina trialMikhail Ermolaev, witness in the Gotovina trial

Ante Gotovina’s defense counsel today cross-examined Russian Navy captain Mikhail Ermolaev for two hours. As expected, he devoted some time to the witness’s claims about the ’unprecedented’ excessive shelling of Knin. In the period relevant to the indictment, Ermolaev was the acting chief UN military observer in Knin. Yesterday in his examination-in chief he repeated what he had said in the two written statements he had given to the OTP investigators. In his words, he had never before experienced such destructive artillery fire against a town with tens of thousands of civilian inhabitants – not even in Sarajevo and in Tuzla where he was deployed earlier.

As he began his cross-examination, Gotovina’s defense counsel noted that the witness declared in his statement that he had spent the first two days of Operation Storm, 4 and 5 August 1995, ’mostly in his office’ in the UN base in Knin. When the defense counsel put it to the witness that he was not competent to describe the shelling as ’unprecedented’ when he spent all the time in his office, the witness agreed that he didn’t monitor the shelling ’actively’ but was able to hear what was going on outside. It is true, however, that in the morning of 4 August 1995, when the shelling began, he was in his apartment in Knin and after he went down to the basement, he couldn’t hear who was firing at whom outside.

The prosecution tendered into evidence through Ermolaev a document of the UN military observers stating the ’final estimate’ of 13,600 destroyed houses in 240 Krajina villages; most of the houses were burned down. When the defense counsel asked about the sources for this summary report and who ordered it to be drafted, after a lengthy session of to-and-fro, Ermolaev finally answered that the data originated from daily and ’supplementary reports’ filed by military observers. The ’permission’ – not the ‘order’ – to draft a summary report was granted by the UN command in Zagreb.

In his evidence earlier this month, Edward Flynn, former chief of the UNHRAT team, estimated that some five hundred houses were burned down in the villages near Knin, Obrovac and Benkovac. Flynn claimed that he had never heard the military observers mention the figure of over 10,000 destroyed houses, although he allowed that the military observers in fact had a fuller picture of the situation because they moved around much more. Ermolaev was surprised to hear what Flynn had said. He was sure that the summary report on the destruction of Krajina Serb houses was forwarded to Flynn, as the chief of the Action Team.

Before he was cross-examined by Greg Kehoe, Ermolaev answered questions by Mladen Markac’s defense. Markac is a former commander of the Special Police. His defense counsel tried to contest the witness’ claims that the Croatian police officers were responsible for the restrictions of movement of the international observers. The defense counsel showed the witness a report drafted by the UN military observers on 6 August 1995 saying that the Croatian special police allowed them to move between Gracac and Gospic. The witness replied that this particular example was not indicative of the general state of affairs. The presiding judge was prompted to add a metaphor, telling the defense counsel that the fact he was permitted to enter the Tribunal’s courtroom once didn’t mean that he could move freely around all UN buildings when and how he liked.

The trial of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac continues on Thursday. Tomorrow is a national holiday in the Netherlands and there will be no hearings at the Tribunal.