The opening statement delivered by the defense of Ivan Cermak, one of three Croatian generals charged with crimes in Operation Storm, will call several military and police experts and a number of other witnesses to respond to ’groundless’ accusations that Cermak had a command role over the army and the police. Among Cermak’s defense witnesses are Croatian president Stjepan Mesic and Ciro Blazevic, BH football team manager and Franjo Tudjman’s close friend

Steven Kay, branilac Ivana ČermakaSteven Kay, branilac Ivana Čermaka

With the opening statement delivered by defense counsel Steven Kay, the defense case began at the trial of Croatian generals Gotovina, Cermak and Markac, on charges of crimes against Serb civilians in the summer and autumn of 1995. In three hours, Kay presented a roadmap for the way his legal team intended to contest the charges and show the ‘lack of foundation’ of the prosecution evidence about the role of the former Knin garrison commander Ivan Cermak in the events in Krajina after Operation Storm.

Cermak’s defense will call two foreign and two local military and police experts; in their expert reports they will explain why they believe that the garrison commander had only ‘civilian issues’ under his jurisdiction; he had no operational role over military and police units. The accused general, the defense argues, occupied himself with ‘normalizing life’ in Knin and around it. He could not make decisions on any important issues. Cermak, defense counsel Kay pointed, was ‘just a conduit through which information flowed on’ from the higher echelons of Croatian authorities to the representatives of the international community in the field.

Most of the 42 witnesses that Cermak’s defense intends to call will say the accused primarily dealt with organizing water and power supply in to Knin, cleaning the rubble, getting the bakeries, factories, shops up and running, and in general with the job of civilian authorities. The defense counsel explained the discrepancy between Cermak’s military rank and the post of commander on the one hand, and his civilian powers on the other. The law didn’t allow for Cermak to be appointed as a civilian official in Knin and he was thus sent to Knin on a military appointment. Furthermore, President Tudjman, as defense witnesses contend, ‘as a Partisan general was obsessed with military ranks’: Cermak thus got the rank of a general, despite the fact that he was just a civilian and an entrepreneur.

The defense will challenge the prosecution’s allegations that the accused covered up the crimes and thus contributed to the atmosphere of impunity which pressured the Serbs in various ways into leaving Krajina. One of the examples is the incident in the village of Grubori where five elderly Serbs were killed in late August 1995. In front of TV cameras Cermak said that they had been killed in the cross-fire between Croatian special police and the remaining Serb soldiers. It was not an attempt to cover up the crime, the defense counsel argued: Cermak was informing the media and the international representatives about the event on the basis of reports he had received from the police. The defense maintains that Cermak always responded promptly when he was informed about any crimes, forwarding the information to relevant authorities because he lacked authority to act more actively. ‘It was a culture of reporting and not of covering up crimes’, the defense counsel noted.

The names on the witness list include Cermak’s close associates in Knin: Petar Pasic, a Serb from Krajina acting as mayor, and liaison officers Dondo and Lukovic. The current Croatian president Stjepan Mesic is also on the list, as are former Tudjman’s chief of staff Hrvoje Sarinic and Tudjman’s close friend, Ciro Blazevic who is now the manager of the BH national football team.

The defense of Mladen Markac, former commander of the special police, will deliver its opening statement tomorrow. On 2 June 2009, the first witnesses will be called by Gotovina’s defense. Gotovina’s lawyers already delivered its opening statement in March 2008 when the trial opened.