Bosnian Croat general cleared of wartime atrocities
by Marlise Simons, The Hague
In a remarkable turnabout, the appeals court of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague on Thursday threw out the earlier conviction of a Bosnian Croat general and reduced his sentence from 45 to 9 years. General Tihomir Blaškić, 44, who has already spent eight years four months in a tribunal cell will be immediately freed. He will travel to Zagreb on Monday, court officials said.
It was a sudden and striking end in a case unlike any other in The Hague. Blaškić has been at the center of the tribunal’s most complex and longest running procedure, with the trial lasting two years and the appeal more than four. While others accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s have won appeals before him, Blaškić will become the most senior official to be released.
In a ruling covering 289 pages, the appeals court rejected most of the lower court’s conclusions and threw out much of his earlier indictment, including charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes against Muslims in Bosnia in 1993.
The lower court had linked him to the cold-blooded killings of civilians in half a dozen villages, including the notorious massacre at Ahmići. But the five-member appeals panel said the lower court had misinterpreted the law, made factual errors, obtained insufficient evidence and meted out unfair punishment. It upheld only three lesser counts of war crimes for not adequately protecting detained civilians and not punishing his subordinates who had wrongfully detained them.
Blaškić showed little emotion when the verdict was read, but Ratka Blaškić and their three young children, who were in the public gallery, shrieked with joy, according to others in the gallery. Some of the Blaškić family supporters applauded. Russell Hayman, the American defense lawyer for the Croat general said by telephone that after four years of appeal: ‘I feel tremendous relief. My client has his life back and this ruling will enhance the credibility of the court.’
Bosnian radio reports broadcast angry reactions from relatives of people slain at Ahmići. One man who lost his parents said the decision made no sense and was a political game and a mockery of justice.
Lawyers at the tribunal said the ruling would probably affect other cases now on appeal. It is also likely to stir much discussion at the court, with its international staff of more than 1,200. The ruling is an unusually explicit and is strong reprimand of the work of the lower court, in particular of the senior justice who presided over it, Judge Claude Jorda of France. Jorda has been president of the tribunal and has since become a judge at the new International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has not yet begun any cases.
In a sweeping rejection, the appeals court said that the lower court had been ‘wholly erroneous’ in its assessment of the case and that no evidence showed that Blaškić had ordered the crimes against civilians in Ahmići and neighbouring villages in 1993. At the time, Croat units attacked Muslims villagers to create terror and make them flee. At Ahmići alone, more than 100 civilians were killed, many of them old people who burned to death in their homes.
But Thursday’s ruling was based not only on errors of the lower court. After Blaškić’s trial and sentencing, much new evidence became available. President Franjo Tuđman of Croatia had repeatedly refused to provide it to the tribunal. After he died, in 1999, the files of the Croatian intelligence agency were discovered hidden at a military base near Split and the new Zagreb government ordered them opened in 2000.
Several of the secret documents, made available to The New York Times, were addressed to Tuđman and signed by his son, Miroslav Tuđman, the wartime intelligence director. Some described the killing of Muslim villagers during ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia, and they clearly seemed to exonerate Blaškić, a Bosnian Croat Army colonel at the time. Instead the documents revealed the role of political leaders who ran a parallel command and used military police units who did the terrorizing and killing of civilians as part of their ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign. Blaškić role was minor, one intelligence document said.
Blaškić, who learned that he was indicted in the Ahmići killings and other crimes, surrendered to The Hague in l996, pressed by the Tuđman government. Two of the president’s aides pledged that he would be exonerated and that they would provide the evidence, according to recordings made at the meeting. But it never came. Croat lawyers said the evidence, which demonstrated political responsibility, led to Tuđman himself and might have led to his own indictment.
After the intelligence archives were opened, the defense asked for a new trial, but failed. But it appealed, armed with the new secret material. Hayman said he submitted more than 8,000 pages of new evidence. A number of witnesses, including British and Balkan military officers, testified in favor of Blaškić. ‘We got a good decision today,’ Hayman said. ‘The first bench was way off on many points, and the appeals court said so.’
This article appeared in The New York Times, 30 July 2004