In an effort to challenge the claim made by former minister of justice Vesna Skare Ozbolt – that after Operation Storm Croatia didn’t obstruct the return of Serb refugees – the prosecution has presented minutes from meetings where President Tudjman spoke about the issue. According to the minutes, the Croatian president stressed that ‘it is out of the question for all of the 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs to return’ and that there should be ‘not even 10 percent’ of them left

Vesna Škare Ožbolt, svjedok odbrane Ante GotovineVesna Škare Ožbolt, svjedok odbrane Ante Gotovine

In the cross-examination of Vesna Skare Ozbolt, prosecutor Gustafson showed her a series of minutes taken at the meetings of Croatian leadership. In the prosecution’s view, the minutes clearly contradict the witness’s claim that in August 1995 after Operation Storm Croatia in no way obstructed the return of Serbs to Krajina. Skare Ozbolt was Tudjman’s deputy chief of staff during that period and she attended some of those meetings. She was called to give evidence before the Tribunal by the defense of Ante Gotovina who is charged together with Cermak and Markac for taking part in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the permanent elimination of Serbs from Krajina in the summer and autumn of 1995.

The witness argued that the law on temporary seizure of property belonging to Serb refugees did not provide for permanent confiscation of the property but merely a short-term suspension of the ownership right. The prosecution showed the minutes of the meeting held on 11 August 1995. In the minutes, Tudjman insists that a ‘radical measure’ be put into the law: if the Serbs didn’t return within three months, their properties would revert to the state. A provision worded in similar terms was indeed put into the law, but the witness reminded the court that Croatia was ‘on its knees’ at that time, facing the pressure of taking care of its own refugees who had to be accommodated somewhere, at least temporarily, and the Serb houses could be used for that purpose. The witness also made it clear that it was important to fill the ‘empty space’, the abandoned areas, because there was a risk of incursions from Republika Srpska and the destruction of houses.

The prosecution however stood by its claim that ‘filling the empty space’ was done to prevent the Serbs from returning. To corroborate this the prosecution showed the minutes from 22 August 1995 where minister for development and refugees Jure Radic explains to Tudjman that ‘historically critical territories’, such as Petrova Gora, should be the first to be colonized; thus ‘there can’t be more than 10 percent of Serbs there’ in the future. ‘Not even 10 percent’, Tudjman replied, according to the minutes. Skare Ozbolt replied that Radic’s ideas were not always wise and were often rejected although the prosecution insisted that ‘not even 10 percent’ didn’t make it look like the president was against it. ‘One should take into consideration the context, the facial expressions of the speakers, and not only the plain transcript’, the witness replied, adding that Tudjman presented different stories to different ministers.

The prosecution also showed a transcript of Tudjman’s speech in June 1997: in Vukovar he said that ‘it’s out of the question for all of the 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs to return to Croatia’ because it could cause a new war. That claim was interpreted in two different ways in the courtroom today. While the prosecution believes it clearly indicates that there would be no return for the Serbs, the witness argued that ‘only those who caused the war’ were banned from returning en masse.

Vesna Skare Ozbolt completed her evidence today. The trial continues on Monday.