On 29th November 2017, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague delivered its judgment on six appeals by Croatian officials and military officers against their convictions for their actions during the Bosnian War of 1992-95.
These crimes, which included grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity, arose out of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at creating a Croatian entity in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the ‘Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’. This was backed by the government of Franjo Tuđman, President of Croatia at the time.
Following the decision, Slobodan Praljak, one of the appellants, shouted out that he rejected the verdict and drank a vial of poison, dying later that day.
Background – the creation of Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia was set up after the First World War as a union of the South Slavic peoples following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was invaded and occupied by Axis forces in April 1941 and partitioned between Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. The occupation was particularly brutal in the German-backed ‘Independent State of Croatia’, where close to a million people are estimated to have been killed, expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism. It is estimated that the total number of people killed in Yugoslavia during the war is between 1 and 2 million. Of these, the Holocaust left only 14,000 Jewish survivors from a pre-war population of 82,500.
Following the Allied victory, Yugoslavia’s Constituent Assembly abolished the monarchy, creating the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The federation was made up of six republics, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines. The constituent republics were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, together with the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, within Serbia. Under its leader Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia was ruled as a police state under the Communist party. Although, Yugoslavia was initially a Soviet satellite, in 1948 Tito broke with Stalin over acceptance of Marshall Aid. Yugoslavia therefore remained outside the Warsaw Pact, despite being a Communist regime.
It was perhaps unlikely that Yugoslavia could survive as a federal state, as it was a somewhat artificial construct of a large number of different peoples. The federation began to loosen following the death of Tito in 1980 and in the following decade the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević attempted to exert Serbian hegemony over the federation. As the Communist regime fell apart at the end of the decade, Yugoslavia looked likely to fragment, and after a string of incidents in the early 1990s, the Yugoslav Wars broke out.
The first to erupt was the brief Ten-Day War of June/July 1991, following the Slovenian declaration of independence. This was followed by the much longer Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), which began when Serbs in Croatia who were opposed to the Croatian nationalist government’s declaration of independence announced their secession from Croatia.
The Bosnian War
Bosnia and Herzegovina was a multi-ethnic state with a population comprising 44% Muslim Bosniaks (who had been present in the region since the rule of the Ottoman Empire), 32.5% Christian Orthodox Serbs and 17% Catholic Croats. On 29th February 1992, it declared its independence. However, this was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs. They were mobilized against the Bosnian government under the leadership of Radovan Karadžić, supported by the Serbian government under Milošević. They sought to crush Bosnian independence by carving out a Bosnian Serb puppet entity called ‘Republika Srpska’.
The Croats were the third side in the conflict. While they initially sided with the Bosniaks (who supported the Bosnian government), relations deteriorated during the course of 1992. On 3rd July 1992, the ‘Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia’ was formally declared, which later became the ‘Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’. It was backed by the government of Croatia, under its nationalist leader Franjo Tuđman.
A brutal war was fought over the following years, not ending until December 1995, after over 100,000 people (mainly Bosniaks) had been killed. The result was a military stalemate and the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was partitioned. But this was not the end of conflict in the former Yugoslavia and war erupted again in 1998 – this time in Kosovo.
These criminal proceedings
This case involved the following six leaders of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia:
- Jadranko Prlić, Prime Minister of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.
- Bruno Stojić, Head of the Department of Defence of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.
- Valentin Ćorić, Chief of the Military Police and then Minister of the Interior of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.
- Slobodan Praljak, Lieutenant General in the Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) and Assistant, then Deputy, Minister of Defence of Croatia.
- Milivoj Petković, Chief of the Main Staff of the HVO.
- Berislav Pušić, officer in the Military Police of the HVO, with responsibilities for detention and prisoner exchange.
The relevant events occurred between 1992 and 1994, in eight municipalities and five detention centres in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was claimed by the Croatian entity.
The Trial Chamber of the ICTY had found that there had been a joint criminal enterprise directed at the oppression of Bosniaks, involving all six appellants together with Franjo Tuđman, President of Croatia. This enterprise consisted of a wide range of crimes against civilians, including murder, removal from homes, detention in very harsh conditions and the use of human shields. It was found that there were thousands of victims to these acts. The Trial Chamber sentenced Prlić to 25 years of imprisonment, Stojić, Praljak, and Petković to 20 years each, Ćorić to 16 years, and Pušić to 10 years.
The six lodged appeals and the prosecution cross-appealed. The Appeals Chamber considered the matter in detail.
First, it addressed the unlawful imprisonment of Muslims in houses in Prozor Municipality, finding no error in the conclusion that the HVO unlawfully imprisoned more than 1,000 Muslim civilians in harsh and overcrowded conditions.
Secondly, it considered the devastation of cities, towns or villages, including the destruction of the historic Old Bridge of Mostar in November 1993. It held, overturning the decision below (with one judge dissenting), that the bridge had been a military target and therefore its destruction did not constitute wanton destruction or persecution and unlawful infliction of terror on civilians. However, the court upheld the Trial Chamber’s finding that the HVO’s siege of East Mostar from June 1993 to April 1994 was specifically intended to discriminate against the Muslims of Mostar Municipality and to inflict terror on the civilian population.
Thirdly, the court upheld the prosecution’s cross-appeal that the HVO’s destruction of mosques in East Mostar and Muslim property in the Prozor Municipality required a finding of wanton destruction. However, the court declined to enter new convictions on appeal.
Fourthly, the court considered the attacks by the HVO on the Gornji Vakuf Municipality in January 1993, reversing the finding that the HVO’s use of shells in its attack on the village of Duša and three other villages was inherently indiscriminate. As such, the appellants’ convictions of murder, wilful killing, persecution and wanton destruction of property in relation to these attacks were overturned.
Fifthly, the court found that the reversal of the findings in relation to the Gornji Vakuf attacks necessitated a conclusion that wilful killing and murder were only part of the common criminal purpose from June, rather than January, 1993 onwards. As a consequence, the convictions for the murders of unarmed men in April 1993 in Prozor Municipality were overturned.
The court then upheld the finding by the Trial Chamber that, following the attacks in Gornji Vakuf Praljak, HVO soldiers set fire to the houses of Bosnian Muslims, illegally arrested and detained civilians and forcibly removed and displaced women, children, and elderly persons.
Regarding the joint common enterprise, the court upheld the finding that this type of liability had been firmly established in customary international law at the relevant time, and agreed with the judgment of the court below regarding its membership and ultimate purpose.
The sentences given by the Trial Chamber were all affirmed. It was at this point that Praljak made his intervention.
The first point to note is that whilst the Yugoslav Wars are undoubtedly complex, the judgment of the court in this case can give moral clarity to the actions of several major players in the Bosnian War. This is important, given that in the space of two and a half decades these wars have (thankfully) already morphed from current affairs into history.
Secondly, it is suggested that the dedication with which court applied itself to the evidence, including its willingness to make findings in favour of the appellants, shows that this judgment is not a rough form of “victor’s justice”. This author finds it very disturbing that Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications wrote in 2001 (in relation to Slobodan Milosevic’s trial) that the court at The Hague was “a demonstration of power more than of justice”.
Finally, it is disappointing that Praljak was able to take his own life rather than submit to his sentence. He is not the first defendant to do this – the former Croatian Serb leaders Slavko Dokmanović and Milan Babić both committed suicide in custody in 1998 and 2006. This is also reminiscent of the actions of Hermann Goering following his conviction at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War. But that being said, the fact that Praljak was convicted at all is hugely significant. Whilst it cannot bring his many victims back, it is important that he was brought to justice while he was still alive.
The ICTY will close on 31st December this year, having indicted and dealt with 161 people in total.
Jonathan Metzer is the Commissioning Editor of the UK Human Rights Blog and a barrister at One Crown Office Row.