Blaskic Sentence Slashed

Author: Rachel S. Taylor, The Hague
Uploaded: Monday, 02 August, 2004

Report in IWPR's Tribunal Update on the release of a Bosnian Croat general on appeal after eight years in Hague detention.

 

In a dramatic two-hour hearing, an appeals chamber on 29 July announced it

had reversed most of the counts on which Bosnian Croat general Tihomir

Blaskic was previously convicted and cut his sentence from 45 years to nine.

Hours later, in another surprise move, the tribunal president, Theodor

Meron, granted Blaskic early release from the United Nations Detention Unit,

which means he will be allowed home as early as 2 August.

Cheers erupted in court when the ruling of the five-judge appeals chamber

was announced. Eyes turned to Blaskic's wife, Ratka, who had appeared to

faint when the original 45-year sentence was read out in March 2000.

This time, her anxiety - and then joy - was visible in the public gallery; a

tribunal guard offered her a cup of water to help calm her nerves.

Blaskic, separated from his family and friends by a glass panel, seemed one

of the few people present to remain calm and expressionless throughout the

proceedings.

The lengthy and far-reaching judgment, which ran to 297 pages, contained

stinging rebukes to the trial chamber that issued the original decision.

Over and over again, presiding Judge Fausto Pocar, reading out a summary of

the ruling, said no reasonable trier of fact could have reached the

conclusions drawn by the previous judges; over and over again, he said the

earlier decisions would be overturned.

Blaskic, former commander of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in central

Bosnia, was indicted in 1995. The following year, he voluntarily

surrendered to the tribunal and pleaded not guilty to all crimes for which

he was charged.

His trial, which focused on claims that Blaskic was responsible for crimes

committed in the Lasva valley in the mid-Nineties, began in 1997.

In 2000, the trial chamber convicted him of 19 counts of grave breaches of

the 1949 Geneva conventions, violations of the laws or customs of war and

crimes against humanity committed between May 1992 and January 1994.

Among other things, they found him guilty of overseeing the troops that

attacked the village of Ahmici in the municipality of Vitez in 1993, killing

more than 100 Bosniak, or Muslim, civilians.

At the time, the presiding judge, Claude Jorda, admonished Blaskic directly.

‘The crimes you committed, General Blaskic, are extremely serious,’ he said.

‘The acts of war carried out with disregard for international humanitarian

law and in hatred of other people, the villages reduced to rubble, the

houses and stables set on fire and destroyed, the people forced to abandon

their homes, the lost and broken lives, are unacceptable.’

Jorda and his colleagues, judges Almiro Rodrigues and Mohamed Shahabuddeen,

then handed down the longest sentence yet issued by the tribunal.

Blaskic appealed soon after, arguing the judges had misinterpreted relevant

law, had made erroneous factual findings and had issued an improper

sentence. He said he had been denied his due process rights because the

indictment against him was too vague and because the prosecution had failed

to disclose a number of exculpatory exhibits.

Importantly, the second time around, Blaskic had a large amount of new

evidence at his disposal.

According to the appeals chamber, this evidence had been kept from the

parties because of a ‘lack of cooperation on the part of Republic of

Croatia’ at the time of the trial and as a result of ‘the delay in the

opening of the Republic of Croatia's archives, which only occurred following

the death of former president Franjo Tudjman’.

Much of this new information, which Blaskic's defense team did have access

to in the original trial, showed Blaskic had not been personally responsible

for the atrocities.

There was so much additional information available that the appeals chamber

established a two-part test to review the trial chamber's findings.

Using this standard, it first analysed the evidence provided during the

trial to determine whether it believed beyond reasonable doubt that Blaskic

was guilty of the specific charge. If the answer was no, the review would

halt and he would be found not-guilty.

If the answer was yes, it would move on to the second step - to look at the

trial evidence and the new evidence together under the correct legal

standard, and determine whether it still believed beyond all reasonable

doubt that Blaskic was guilty of the specific charge.

Using this new standard of review, the appeals chamber quickly overturned

most of the trial chamber's findings.

In particular, it dismissed the trial chamber's conviction of Blaskic for

the crimes committed in Ahmici and in neighboring villages on 16 April

1993.

The appeals chamber decided the trial chamber relied on ‘wholly erroneous’

evidence, that its findings were ‘tenuous’ and that the new evidence

admitted on appeal ‘fatally undermines’ the previous conclusions.

The appeals chamber then swiftly reversed his conviction on these counts.

The judges went on to similarly consider - and overturn - Blaskic's

conviction for crimes committed in other parts of the Vitez municipality, as

well as in Loncari, Ocehnici, and Kiseljak.

The appe

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