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Croatia: Country In Crisis Following UN Indictment Of 'War Hero' Bobetko

  • Jolyon Naegele

Croatia is up in arms over the UN war crimes tribunal's indictment of the former chief of staff of Croatia's armed forces. The indictment is for crimes allegedly committed during the 3 1/2-year war for independence from the former Yugoslavia. Analysts warn that the government is making a big mistake in backing the 83-year-old war hero's refusal to surrender to the tribunal.

Zagreb, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Croatia is facing a national crisis over an indictment by the UN's war crimes tribunal of General Janko Bobetko, the country's top military commander during its 1991-95 war for independence.

The Croatian government on 20 September rejected the indictment on procedural grounds and pledged not to hand over Bobetko, who is considered by many in the country to be a war hero. After sending the indictment back to The Hague, Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic said the Croatian government should declare the indictment illegal and launch a legal challenge to the tribunal.

In an interview today with RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, Bobetko called the indictment a "plot."

"All I can see is a plot, a new form of a fascist behavior, the basic aim of which is to undermine the Croatian state," Bobetko said. "They want to equalize the victim and the criminal. This is the central point."

Yesterday, the tribunal issued a corrected version of the indictment after Croatian government officials said a previous order did not require that any specific action be taken against Bobetko. The indictment, among other charges, accuses Bobetko -- as chief of staff of the Croatian Army -- of crimes against humanity and murder through having played what it calls a "central role" in developing, planning, authorizing, ordering, and/or executing the Croatian military operation in a valley near Gospic, known as the Medak Pocket, in September 1993.

The indictment says that during the Medak Pocket operation, "serious violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity were committed, resulting in the deaths of at least 100 Serbs, including 29 civilians and the destruction by fire and explosives of 164 homes."

In addition, Bobetko is accused of persecution for the "cruel and inhumane" treatment of Serb civilians and captured and wounded soldiers by soldiers under his command. The indictment says Bobetko failed to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent these acts from being committed or for the perpetrators to be punished.

Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Granic saif the Medak Pocket operation was "necessary, and aimed against terrorism and killings," and that it was Bobetko's "duty" to take action.

Bobetko said any crimes that were committed were committed against the Croatian state: "I know what has been done in Croatia. It deserves not only punishment but also responsibility because genocide against one nation cannot be put into bureaucratic formulas."

The opposition has rushed to Bobetko's support. Many independent political analysts in Zagreb say the government is weak and unstable and is thus a hostage to public opinion and pressure from the opposition.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan said last night that his government "will not budge" from its refusal to hand Bobetko over and will pursue all means at its disposal to prevent it from happening. However, in contrast to previous statements, Racan added that his government will seek advice from the Supreme Court on how to proceed constitutionally. This could be the start of a retreat if the government lets the court rule that it must eventually comply with the tribunal's indictment or face the enmity of the international community.

As Racan put it last night: "This is not going to be a fast and easy battle, and we cannot foresee the consequences. But I hope we shall not plunge into international conflict, isolation, and sanctions."

Professor Damir Grubisa of the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb said it will be hard for the Croatian government to prove its allegation that the tribunal is acting without respecting the basic assumption for a fair trial by indicting Bobetko without even trying to take his deposition. As a result, he said, the government has put itself on a "collision course" with the tribunal that he said is counterproductive, as it could cause complications for the government's international standing.

"The indictment is obviously something that has to be debated in the court, and Croatia should respect The Hague tribunal, irrespective of these procedural failures...even in the case of General Bobetko, who is perceived as a national hero. However, we have learned from history that even national heroes are fallible -- and practically, they can even commit violations of human rights during war," Grubisa said.

Slaven Letica, an economics professor at Zagreb University and is a leading political commentator, said, "From the public point of view, [the indictment] is unacceptable, but justification for refusal is weak because [it is placing] international obligations above the state or national constitutions."

Letica believes the government should take a new tack by reinterpreting the 1991-95 conflict as a struggle against terrorism by Serb forces. And he said the government should at least investigate what actually happened in the Medak Pocket: "I don't think a thorough investigation was done at the time when it happened, although there were UN observers on the spot. The Croatian government and General Bobetko himself made a decision to replace some of the soldiers or officers in charge. So he personally couldn't be charged on the basis of command responsibility for not doing anything regarding crimes that might have happened in the Medak Pocket."

Letica said there are many creative ways for the Croatian government to approach this issue, rather than arguing on the basis of the Croatian constitution, which it has chosen so far as its only approach.

Davorka Matic, a professor of sociology at Zagreb University, said the public outcry over Bobetko is due in large part to frustration that public outrage in 2001 over the indictment of several popular war heroes failed to induce greater caution on the part of tribunal prosecutors. The tribunal is perceived in Croatia as running roughshod over Croatia's national war for independence and placing Croatian troops and police on the same level -- morally -- as their Serbian oppressors.

"Most of the public -- and I think this is a positive development within the Croatian population -- are aware that crimes have been committed [by the Croatian Army during the 1991-95 war]. Some terrible atrocities and abuses of human rights have been committed, and these are the things we have to deal with and resolve," Matic said. "The political elite, the government, failed in that respect. They behaved like ostriches, putting their heads in the sand hoping their problems would disappear. Of course, they are not disappearing, they are just eventually becoming graver and graver."

Matic said the public now feels that the government has failed: "It's not so much the Western world or Western diplomats or the [Hague] prosecutors who [the public perceives] are treating the country in an unfair way, but that the government primarily betrayed its tasks, its mission. The [government] did not do what it was supposed to do, whether in investigating cases by themselves, whether in opening broad public discussion about it, be it initiating some kind of academic or scholarly analysis of the war and of what really happened on both sides."

Matic said the Croatian government and The Hague tribunal have failed to analyze the "real situation" in the Croatian Army in 1991-95 -- its internal structure, its relationship with the government, and the apparent absence of clearly defined responsibilities and authority.

"The Croatian state was not a functioning state in 1991. There was no real Croatian army when the war started. It was built from scratch, and the problem is that the commanders are treated as if they had complete control over that army, as if it were the case of the American or British army, an army with a decades- or centuries-old system developed with a clearly defined line of command and responsibility," Matic said.

Moreover, Matic noted that due to the international arms embargo on Croatia at the time, the government had to rely on criminal forces to supply the country with weapons, making what she describes as a "pact with the devil -- the criminalization of defense."

Matic said the Croatian public also finds the timing of the indictment of Bobetko and other former Croatian commanders questionable, since she said there is a public perception that the tribunal indicts Croats largely to ensure an appearance of balance in prosecuting all sides equally in the conflict. "The Hague tribunal is not bringing justice. It is just trying to fulfill its own mission rather than solving what it was established to do," Matic said.

A spokesperson for the UN tribunal, Florence Hartmann, denied this in an interview with RFE/RL today: "Well, it's not at all. It is just a political argument for people who are not ready to hand over an indictee. Bobetko and [General Ante] Gotovina are indicted for their individual responsibility in the crimes committed during, beside or after military operations."

Bobetko is the third and the highest-ranking Croatian officer to be indicted by the UN tribunal. General Rahim Ademi, indicted in 2001 for his part in the Medak Pocket operation, turned himself in and was released on bail in February. Retired General Ante Gotovina went into hiding after being indicted for war crimes allegedly committed during an August 1995 operation.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs contributed to this story.)