AIM: start

SUN, 23 SEP 2001 16:30:27 GMT

A series of war crimes-related arrests

AIM, Zagreb, September 8, 2001

"Old Couple Shot Dead, then Burned," "Four Men Arrested for Crimes after Operation Storm," "Three 20-Year Old Conscripts Led by Officer Kill Three Civilians and One POW, "Old Couple Killed, then Buried To Cover Up Crimes," "Arrests Related to Crimes Committed After Storm Began," "Arrests for Crimes in Lora To Begin Soon" - these are some of the front page headlines offered as of recently to the Croatian public. Croatian state TV, which used to consider war crimes taboo, has also began covering them.

The public is growing painfully aware of a change in the official line that in the war dubbed the War for the Fatherland by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, Croatian forces could not have committed any crimes because they were simply defending their country. This official policy introduced by the former president of the Supreme Court (today a member of the Constitutional Court), Milan Vukovic, was without reserve backed by the pro-government media, especially by the state-run TV network, which referred to the war as "holy" and consisting of "glorious military victories." If they ever mentionedwar crimes, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, it was only to refer to them as something that had claimed exclusively Croatian victims and never as something that Croats perpetrated.

Crimes committed by Croats were mentioned even while the Croatian Democratic Union was in power, but it was only in relation to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), anathemized as an instrument of the international community which "cannot tell the victims from the criminals," and which in fact "wants "to punish the Croats from abandoning Yugoslavia against the will of international power-mongers and creating their own country." These two claims, strongly advocated by Tudjman, together with the one promoted by Vukovic, represented the backbone of the official policy on the War for the Fatherland, challenged only by a few independent media outlets and intellectuals who were subsequently blasted by all others as traitors and foreign mercenaries.

The current campaign to shed light on war crimes committed by some Croatian soldiers during the war can be explained as due to a desire of Premier Ivica Racan's government to improve its unpleasant spot between the ICTY on one side and the Croatian public on the other, the latter quite unprepared to face even the idea that crimes by Croatia were possible. Racan has obviously concluded that arresting war crimes suspects and having them prosecuted by domestic courts can be useful in two respects: it will silence the ICTY's objections that Croatia has done nothing to punish war criminals and it will convince the public that it is much better to prosecute Croatians at home than in the Hague court.

Goran Granic, Croatian deputy prime minister and the key official in charge of cooperation with the ICTY, had a secret meeting with Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte on Aug. 30, immediately after four former Croatian soldiers and police were arrested in Bjelovar on suspition of war crimes. It was the first war crimes-related arrest after Gen. Mirko Norac was taken into custody at the beginning of the year, and before him a group of his collaborators, on suspicion of having committed a war crime against Serb civilians in Gospic, in October 1991.

The arrest of Norac, who is in custody and on trial in Rijeka, has caused strong protests and seriously shaken the Racan government. Regardless of the fact that the protests were attributed to the extreme rightist parties and former intelligence and military circles, it cannot be denied that the rallies, especially one in Split where about 100,000 people were present -- were massive and very dangerous for the government.

His secret trip to The Hague, which was only later discovered by reporters and only then officially confirmed, Racan's closest collaborator obviously wanted to calm Del Ponte and tell her that Croatia was ready to decisively deal with war crimes and their perpetrators. And indeed, shortly before the visit the Bjelovar group was arrested and the end of the investigation into crimes committed in the Lora military prison in Split was announced. Independent media outlets featured extensive coverage of the torture and the killing of inmates in the Lora prison, but only now will that case end. The case of the killing of civilians in Sisak in 1991, in which 20 people disappeared, will be reopened, and investigators will probe events in Osijek in 1991, where prominent Serbs were murdered under mysterious circumstances.

But the public was shocked the most by the latest in a series of arrests. Four former soldiers were taken into custody as suspects in the August 1995 murder one imprisoned Serb Krajina solider in Zecevo, near Sibenik, after Operation Storm. The arrest revealed another crime which happened in the villages of Prukljan and Mandici, also in vicinity of Sibenik. There, after Operation Storm, two old people were killed. They were Milica and Nikola Damjanic, the latter being a 76-year old disabled man who could only move around on crutches. Their bodies were later set on fire in order to cover up the crime.

Croatian state TV is now mentioning these events, which is an indication that the Racan government is about to start dealing with the dark side of the War for the Fatherland. It is still hard to say how far it would be willing to go and how sincere is its intention to punish war crimes will be, or how much the campaign is aimed at appeasing and neutralizing the Hague court. The fact is that Carla del Ponte is about to finish a report for the U.N. on Croatia's cooperation with the court and Zagreb fears that this document could be unfavorable unless something is truly done about war crimes. This is even more so because retired general Ante Gotovina, who has been indicted this summer, is on the run, and all deadlines for his extradition have expired, making him the greatest obstacle to good cooperation between The Hague and Zagreb.

The Racan government obviously knows the whereabouts of the fugitive general but is afraid to arrest him for two reasons: according to the media, the general has said he would resist arrest, and would probably be assisted by his backers, and even more by the public reaction if the arrest operation is carried out clumsily and with casualties. This issue is Racan's worst nightmare, and the speedy arrest of the small fries is interpreted as a strong signal of good will to The Hague tribunal that Croatia is not sweeping war crimes under the carpet, but is willing to prosecute the perpetrators and punish them accordingly.

Drago Hedl (AIM)