The Judgment for the Croatian Generals (4)

The judgment of generals Gotovina, Cermak and Markac highlights the omissions in the investigations of crimes after Operation Storm as another indicator of the existence of a joint criminal enterprise whose goal was to expel Serbs from Krajina. The emphasis was placed on the crime in the village of Grubori. The Croatian special police murdered a number of civilians in the village; their commanders then invented a story about a clash with ‘terrorists’

In addition to analyzing the plans for the military attack on Krajina and measures adopted afterwards to prevent the return of Serb refugees, the Trial Chamber focused in particular to what happened in Operation Storm and its immediate aftermath it in its findings on the joint criminal enterprise. The judgment of the Croatian generals states that an indiscriminate artillery attack on civilians started on the first day of the operation, 4 August 1995. When the Croatian Army and the special police entered the occupied territory, the abandoned houses were destroyed, and civilians were murdered, subjected to inhumane treatment and deported.

Those crimes were not adequately investigated and punished. In a separate chapter of the judgment on the joint criminal enterprise, the Trial Chamber puts forth its conclusions about the causes of the ‘inadequate response’ of the Croatian law enforcement and judiciary to the events in the field. Having considered the attitudes of the Croatian authorities towards the investigations, the judges brought up the first part of the evidence of former Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Elizabeth Rehn. As she said, President Franjo Tudjman told her that it was impossible to ‘keep the gloves on’ in a fight and to prevent the Croatian returnees from committing acts of revenge and destroying Serb houses. The Trial Chamber also invoked the report of the UN Secretary-General of 14 February 1996, which notes that ‘[t]he discrepancy […] between the number of apparent violations of the right to life recorded by United Nations investigators in the former Sectors and the number of cases acknowledged by the Croatian authorities continues to be unaccountably large' and insists that except in the massacre of nine Serbs at Varivode, 'there is little evidence of progress in resolving the many other reported cases of individual killings' of civilians.

When Krajina was liberated, the Croatian authorities cleaned up the terrain. A number of Serbs who had been killed were buried without any sort of investigation into how they had died. The Trial Chamber doesn’t contend that the purpose of the sanitation effort was to cover up the crimes. However, there were a number of omissions in the way the investigations were conducted. Mladen Bajic, who was the Deputy Military Prosecutor for the Split Military District (he is now the Croatian Public Prosecutor), corroborated this conclusion when he testified that about the 300 bodies disinterred at the Knin cemetery in 2001; most of the bodies were buried after Operation Storm without an on-site investigation.

The judges accepted the defense argument that the lack of investigations was caused by objective circumstances, such as work force shortage and lack of equipment, dire conditions in the war and a large number of crimes. The judgment notes there were attempts to deliberately obstruct investigations in some cases, but there was no evidence that the there was a policy pursued by the Croatian authorities not to investigate crimes. Since some – not many – crimes were prosecuted, the Trial Chamber concluded that ‘some investigatory efforts were made, but with relatively few results’ and they ‘were motivated at least in part by a concern for Croatia’s international standing rather than by genuine concern for victims'.

A typical example of a deliberate obstruction of the investigation is the chain of events following the murder of five elderly Serbs in the Krajina village of Grubori on 25 August 1995. The number of witnesses testifying about this incident greatly exceeded all other evidence for crimes listed in the indictment. Based on the evidence of the police commanders and the special police personnel, the Trial Chamber concluded that after the elderly persons were killed, the special police leadership invented a story about the clash with ‘Serb terrorists’.

This finding was corroborated by the evidence of Josip Celic, who was in charge of the clean-up operation in the Plavno Valley. The incident in the village of Grubori occurred during the operation. Although Celic tried to recant parts of his statement to the OTP investigators, the Trial Chamber in its judgment gave credence to Celic’s claims that in his report to his superiors he said clearly there had been no fighting in the clean-up operation. Celic was then summoned to Gracac where Mladen Markac and his deputy Zeljko Sacic told Celic there had been an ‘armed conflict’ in Grubori. Celic was told to draft a new report, which was dictated to him by Sacic in an adjacent room. The terrorist story was further corroborated in August and September 1995 when other members of the Special Police backdated their reports on the orders of Markac and Sacic, confirming the details as they had been dictated to Celic, the judgment concluded.

After three years in which the prosecution and the defense called their evidence, the Trial Chamber found that the Croatian Special Police were responsible, beyond reasonable doubt, for the murders in the village of Grubori.