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November 20, 1995
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 216
The Hague Indictments

Spirits From Both Bottles

by Dejan Anastasijevic

The international criminal court for war criminals in former Yugoslavia is obviously accelerating its pace: in the last ten days, nine people were indicted for major violations of international humanitarian rights, and against two of the "older" candidates for The Hague, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the indictments are "enriched" with new details. Unlike the former practice, during which the Serbs were disproportionately represented on the list of the indicted (40 out of the total 42), the newest wave of indictments seems to be a bit more balanced: two Serbs and five Croats are on the new list. Besides that, The Hague's previous candidates were, excluding Karadzic, Mladic and Milan Martic, mostly "small fish", camp guards and policemen. This time, however, we have people who are holding, or have until recently held, relatively high positions in the military systems of their respective governments. Moreover, their eventual testimonies in court would shake up the regimes in Belgrade and Zagreb quite a bit, and to a lesser degree, in Sarajevo as well, since Naser Oric, the Commander of the Srebrenica enclave, shall most likely find his name on the indictment list.

Let's start from the beginning: on Thursday, November 9, the Tribunal indicted three officers of the former Yugoslav National Army, Mileta Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic. The prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, deems the three of them guilty for the death of 260 people, mostly wounded men, who were, on November 20, 1991 taken out of the hospital in Vukovar, and then shot and buried nearby a livestock farm in Ovcar. At the time, Mrksic was a Colonel and Commander of the Guard Brigade, the strongest unit of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) which was at the time deployed in the Vukovar region, Sljivancanin, holding the rank of Major, was Mrksic's security officer, and Radic, then a Captain, was Commander of the Third Company of the First Battalion of the same unit. On the above stated date, Sljivancanin was seen in front of the hospital: the TV camera crews filmed a corpulent officer with a mustache, as he was threatening a lean, blond representative of the International Red Cross that he would throw him into the river Vuka if he continued trying to enter the hospital. At the same time, as witnesses have stated, Sljivancanin's men were taking less seriously wounded men out by a side exit and were loading them on to buses for Ovcar. A short, one-way journey was closely guarded by Radic's company. The actual murderers were, as stated by VREME's sources, the members of the "Territorial Defense", an umbrella-organization which included volunteers, "local personnel" and certain police units, and which was later disbanded. The names of some of the actual executors are known, but they have so far failed to appear on Goldstone's list. Throughout it all, Mrksic remained in his headquarters in Negoslavci, a nearby village on the border with Serbia. During the three-month siege of Vukovar, he never even thought of approaching the battle field closer than some twenty kilometers - even during the one-day visit of Blagoje Adzic in October 1991, who was the head of the General Staff at the time, having managed to discretely extricate himself from being Adzic's escort. All of this did not stop him from later declaring proudly that his command tactics shall be "taught at the military academies".

THREE CAREERS: All three accused have obviously been sustained by the military top officials of the time, since they were, on December 22, 1991 while the ruins in Vukovar were, so to say, still smoking, extraordinarily promoted: Mrksic, in his forty-fifth year became a General, Sljivancanin a Lieutenant Colonel in his thirty-eighth and Radic a Captain of the first class before his thirtieth. Their roads started separating from there: Mrksic got a position in the General Staff and was assigned as the head of the newly formed Special Forces Corps of the Yugoslav Army. He was removed from that function to the position of head of the Educational Department of the General Staff, and in May of this year he suddenly became the Commander of the Serbian Army of Krajina. After operation "Storm" he was quietly retired in Belgrade, and lately, they say, he has moved to Banja Luka, where, together with Milan Martic, Mileta Novakovic and Milan Celeketic, he is "preparing a guerrilla war for the liberation of Krajina".

Sljivancanin had, following his return from Krajina, enjoyed fame which his TV appearance in front of the Vukovar hospital had brought: he gave interviews to illustrated magazines, which called him the "Knight of Vukovar", and they started spotting him in the Writers Club restaurant accompanied by nationally-aware intellectuals. All of that probably started irritating his superiors, so that he was first assigned to Mrksic's Special Forces Corps (and therefore effectively removed from security), and later transferred to Podgorica, where he has remained until today in the function of Brigade Commander. Sljivancanin is the only one of the newly indicted whose residence is known for sure and the only one who is even today an active military officer of the Yugoslav Army (VJ). Some of his acquaintances have stated that, in the meantime, his nerves have become shattered, and that he has sleeping disorders.

Least is known about the third indicted man, Radic: he retired two years ago, following a personal request, where all trace of him was lost. According to some sources, he has opened up a privately owned company; according to others, he is employed by a construction company. It is interesting to note that, a full ten days following charges that have been brought against them, none of the accused either could not or would not make a public announcement. State television cautiously kept quiet with regard to that incident, while regime newspapers restricted themselves to quoting Tanjug's scant news bulletins. The only exception partially being Sljivancanin, who shortly after the indictment told Vecernje Novine that he "still hadn't read the newspapers" and that he would call back later. Since then, ten days have gone by.

AGGRESSORS AND VICTIMS: Six days after the "Ovcar case" was opened, Goldstone came up with indictments against six Croats: Dario Kordic, Tihofil Blaskic, Marij Cerkez, Ivan Santic, Pera Skopljak and Zlatko Alesovski. The first two are extremely high officials of the Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia (HRHB): Kordic being the Vice President of the HRHB and head of the local Croatian Democratic Association (HDZ), while Blaskic, a General, was until recently head of the headquarters of the Croatian Council of Defense in Mostar. Goldstone accuses them of genocide, mass murders and persecution of Moslems from central Bosnia, especially from the valley of the Lasva river, which the Croats have thoroughly ethnically-cleansed in 1993. Included in this is the massacre in the Ahmici village, which was completely burned out following the murder of 120 inhabitants. The mayor of Vitez Santic, the local commander of the Croatian Army of Defense (HVO) Cerkez, the local police chief Skopljak and the warden of the military jail in Mostar Aleksovski, managed to get by on lesser charges: they are accused "only" for violation of the law and war customs and the Geneva Convention, that is for assault on unprotected and civilian targets, as well as for murders of civilians.

If in Belgrade the response towards the indictments was (it could be said indignant) silence, Zagreb's reaction was quick and severe, which could have been expected, since in Croatia the official stand was adopted a long time ago the "Croats cannot be war criminals since they were fighting a defensive war". A few days after the charges were brought, Tudjman, directly from Dayton, personally promoted Blaskic and handed him the position of Head Inspector of the Croatian Army. Simultaneously, the local regime propaganda machine uttered its historical "No" to Goldstone, while the accused started receiving telegrams of support from all sides. The youth wing of HDZ even sends word that "Kordic and Blaskic were equally guilty of war crimes as were the wounded men in the Vukovar hospital", the only difference being that "they had succeeded in protecting the Croatian citizens in the Lasva valley from total extermination, while managing to stay alive in that battle". This statement, by its cynicism, can only be compared to the official stand of the Slavonian Serbs that in "Ovcar only animal bones can be found".

WHAT NEXT: It is obvious that to extradite any of the above named would be extremely painful, maybe even intolerably so for both Belgrade and Zagreb: it is not only a question of extradition of high ranking officers of their own armies which would serve as a blow to the national pride of both republics, but also that the accused could, by their testimonies in court most probably point further investigation in the direction of their superiors, dangerously close to the very top of the pyramid of power. After all, the actual commander of JNA's Slavonian adventure wasn't Mrksic, but Andrija Biorcanin, head of the Novi Sad Corpus. Directly above him was Adzic, and we should bear in mind that the present head of the VJ headquarters, Momcilo Perisic, due to his Mostar experience is "vulnerable" with regards to the Geneva Convention. Similarly, in Croatia further investigation could lead to Slobodan Praljak, Mate Boban, Milivoje Petkovic, Ante Ros and Janko Bobetko, all the way up to Gojko Suska, the current Minister of Defense, one of the most powerful figures on the Croatian political scene as well as Tudjman's regular tennis partner.

The Statute of the Tribunal in The Hague is clear: in case the government to which the Tribunal has delivered the arrest warrant of the accused in "a reasonable amount of time" fails to inform the Tribunal of the measures which they have taken regarding those warrants, or openly refuses to cooperate, the Tribunal informs the Security Council of this, which therefore can (but is not obliged to) vote out sanctions against such a government. Whether it would come to that depends, however, on the regular members of the Security Council, who had founded the Tribunal. Even though all, and especially the United States, explicitly stress their readiness to back the Tribunal, it is obvious that the warrants from The Hague are used quite a bit as pressure on the negotiators in Dayton, and the amount of that pressure can be tempered in accordance with the cooperation of Milosevic, Tudjman and (to a lesser degree) Izetbegovic in issues concerning the territorial distribution. From that viewpoint, the Croatian open refusal to consider the indictments from The Hague and Blaskic's promotion was a highly impudent move: instead of waiting for the "reasonable amount of time" to pass, during which negotiations would most likely have been concluded, Tudjman has practically forced the international community to exert severe pressure on him. The American administration has already let it be known that in case Blaskic's promotion goes through, Croatia shall be imposed with "certain sanctions".

That the Tribunal in any case intends to go to the very top, is seen by the statement of Graham Bluit, Goldstone's deputy, who announced regarding the "Vukovar threesome" that: "We wish to ascertain whether the accused acted in keeping with commands from above or independently. When we ascertain this, we shall try their superiors - in the first case because they ordered the crimes, and in the second, for not having taken any steps to prevent them, or for not punishing the executors." Simultaneously, the Washington Post stated that The Hague Tribunal is "intensively working on bringing charges against Slobodan Milosevic".

For that, we shall probably have to wait until the conclusion of the negotiations in Dayton.

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