A crucial war crimes trial against two former high-ranking Croat officers, accused of atrocities against ethnic Serbs during a 1993 military operation, opened in Zagreb on Monday (June 18th) amid tight security.The case against retired generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac is the first to have been transferred to the Croatian judiciary by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The trial, expected to last about a year, will test the country’s readiness to join the EU, observers say.
During the opening hearing at Zagreb County Court, prosecutors read the joint indictment, after which the generals pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The atrocities Ademi and Norac are accused of took place during an operation conducted by the Croatian Army in September 1993, in a bid to recapture the area around the small village of Medak in central Croatia. The self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina controlled the area at the time.
Prosecutors hold the two generals responsible for the killings of 28 civilians and five prisoners of war by forces under their command, charging them also with failure to prevent the torture of some of the victims and the destruction of their property.
Ademi, a 53-year-old ethnic Albanian, served at the time as acting commander of the Gospic military district in southern Croatia. He surrendered to The Hague tribunal in 2001 was provisionally released a year later pending trial.
Norac, 39, was commander of the Croatian Army’s 9th Guards Motorised Brigade during the events covered by the indictment. He is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence handed down by a Croatian court in 2003 for the killings of about 50 Serb civilians in the region of Gospic in 1991.
After nine hearings, the trial will take a summer break around mid-July. In all, well over 200 people would likely be called to the witness stand after September. Prosecutors, who are reportedly going to present a large amount of evidence, are planning call to 137 witnesses, including 34 with protected identity. According to Croatian media, there are about 100 people on the defence team’s list of witnesses.
If convicted, Ademi and Norac could each face 20 years in prison.
With Croatia hoping to join the EU by the end of the decade, the international community will be watching closely how the country’s judiciary handles its highest-profile war crimes case to date.
The trial will be “an important element in assessing the level of democracy in Croatia” and a test whether the “Croatian judiciary has become professional and depoliticised”, the Italian news agency AKI quoted Ivo Josipovic, a professor at Zagreb University’s law faculty, as telling reporters Monday.
Meanwhile, reporting to the UN Security Council, chief ICTY prosecutor Carla del Ponte suggested on Monday that the OSCE should monitor courts handling war crimes trials in the Balkans, particularly in Croatia.