Judgment for the Croatian Generals (3)

In the judgment for Gotovina, Markac and Cermak, the judges concluded that the aim of the legal measures introduced by the Croatian authorities after Operation Storm was to ‘allocate the abandoned Serb property […] to Croats and thereby deprive the real owners of their housing and property’; this also led the Trial Chamber to find that the joint criminal enterprise did exist in this case

The judgment for generals Gotovina, Cermak and Markac states that the various pieces of legislation on the abandoned Serb property introduced by the Croatian authorities after Operation Storm are just another indicator that the joint criminal enterprise to permanently expel the Serbs from Krajina in the summer of 1995 did exist. The Trial Chamber considered not only the contents of those acts but also the discussions at various meetings of the state leadership before they were passed.

The focal point of the analysis was the Decree on the Temporary Takeover and Administration of Certain Properties and the law passed by the Parliament under the same name a bit later. The Decree was passed at a government meeting on 31 August 1995 and envisaged that the houses and properties abandoned after Operation Storm should be placed under the administration of the state; commissions established by local authorities should allocate the property to ‘expelled persons, refugees, returnees whose property was destroyed or damaged during the Homeland War,...and to the families of dead (...) Croatian defenders’ and other persons involved in the activities essential ‘for the security, reconstruction and development’ of the recently liberated territories. A decision of the commission for the allocation of property to specified categories could be quashed only if the rightful owners of the property ‘return[ed] within 30 days of this Decree coming into force and seeking restitution’. In other words, if the owners failed to appear before the commission by this deadline, they lost their property.

Some 20 days later, on 20 September 1995, the Croatian Parliament adopted the law which mirrored all the key provisions of the Decree. The only difference was the deadline for the restitution of property which was extended to 90 days. Several witnesses who were high-ranking state officials at the time relevant for the indictment, like the deputy prime minister Jure Radic, claimed that the deadline was extended because few persons applied for the restitution by the ‘unrealistic’ deadline of 30 days. Former US ambassador in Zagreb Peter Galbraith said in his evidence that the deadline was extended under pressure of the US and the international community.

In their evidence before the Tribunal, former Croatian state officials claimed that the idea was to ‘protect abandoned property’. By setting a deadline of 30 or 90 days, they made sure that the people could ‘return as soon as possible’ and the laws didn’t specify the ethnicity of persons whose property was taken over. The prosecution nevertheless tendered into evidence a series of minutes from the meetings of the Croatian state bodies where this issue was discussed. In June 1995, after Operation Flash, Jure Radic demanded at a meeting of the Supreme National Defense Council that Croatia take over the houses of Serb refugees ‘in the beginning temporarily and later permanently’. At the government meeting when the decree was adopted, Radic described this legal act as ‘a historic document which determines demographic future of liberated area". Radic unequivocally demanded that ‘Croats expelled from BH and Serbia’ be resettled in the abandoned houses. At a government meeting after Operation Storm president Tudjman agreed with proposal to declare 'all abandoned property state property on the pretext of preserving the property'.

Jure Radic led the way at the meetings with Tudjman and other Croatian politicians by making proposals to seize the abandoned Serb property from its owners and to allocate it to Croats. The Trial Chamber therefore found that Radic was also a participant in the joint criminal enterprise whose aim was to ethnically cleanse Krajina, although he didn’t participate in Operation Storm directly.

The temporary takeover measures were rescinded on 17 January 1996, but had already yielded results: it was clear that only a small part of the Serbs would decide to return. According to the evidence of the special rapporteur of the UN Commission for Human Rights Elizabeth Rehn, by early 1998 only ten percent of the Serb civilians had returned to Krajina. Peter Galbraith estimated that by 2000 there were ‘either no or very few returns’. The few Serbs returned only after the US authorities put pressure on Croatia. Galbraith said in his evidence that the aim of the Croatian leadership was to use the law to ‘take the property, to make it impossible for the Serbs to return and to resettle Croats in Krajina’.

The Trial Chamber concluded in its judgment that the ‘purpose of the time limit of 30 or 90 days was to make it more difficult for persons who wished to return to reclaim their property’. The judges were unanimous that the goal of the legal instruments adopted after the Operation Storm was to ‘allocate the abandoned Serb property in the liberated areas to Croats and thereby deprive the real owners of their housing and property’. The judgment described such legal instruments ‘as discriminatory’.