After the acquittal of generals Gotovina and Markač at the ICTY, the Croatian judiciary must demonstrate that they know how to judge the crimes committed by the Croatian side in the 90s, without the bias seen so far against the Serbs
The acquittal of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač for the crimes committed during the military operation Oluja (Storm) in 1995, when the Croatian army regained the control of most of the so-called Serbian Republic of Krajina (created by the Serb rebels in Croatia at the beginning of the war in 1991), raised the question of who is actually guilty of these crimes.
How many are the victims and who are the culprits?
Data on the number of civilians killed during and after the operation Oluja differ greatly depending on the source. While the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Croatia reports 667 civilian deaths, Serbian NGO Veritas states 1934 were killed, of which 1,196 civilians. The Hague tribunal, during the investigation and trial, reported instead about 170 people killed. Although the statistics are very different, it is indisputable that none of them is negligible and that the perpetrators of these crimes must not go unpunished.
An invitation to find the perpetrators of the killings of so many people was also expressed by Croatian president Ivo Josipović and Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, on the very day the Hague Tribunal acquitted the two generals. A few days later, the judiciary reported that the investigation of these crimes will have priority. And indeed, less than two weeks after the acquittal of Gotovina and Markač, the remains of 31 people killed during the operation Oluja were exhumed in the cemetery of Šibenik, not far from Knin (the "capital" of the then Republic of Serbian Krajina).
At the beginning of November, in Croatia there were 99 ongoing trials on war crimes. Of the 519 accused, however, it is not known how many of them are Croats and how many are Serbs.
Disparities in war crimes trials
Civil society organizations involved in trial monitoring for war crimes, as the Documenta centre, have often complained that Croatian courts do not use the same criteria when they judge Croats and Serbs for war crimes. A recent example, raised by several organizations of civil society, is related to judgements in early October by the Court of Zagreb in the process for the torture of 34 civilians and Serbian military prisoners, from the end of 1991 to mid 1992, in the prison of Kerestinec in the outskirts of Zagreb, in the former Yugoslav People's Army missile base.
Although according to Croatian laws the punishment for war crimes is between five and twenty years of imprisonment, the Zagreb court sentenced the five accused to a punishment far below the minimum. The main accused, former commander of the prison of Kerestinec, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison; his subordinate, a member of the military police, to two years; the remaining three policemen, to one year.
Despite this, the court has shown that Kerestinec was a place of torture where prisoners of war and civilians were beaten, raped, tortured with electric shocks, and forced to perform oral sex. "There is no doubt that the prisoners of war in Kerestinec have been sexually abused on several occasions", said the judge while reading the sentence, reporting only some of the horrors to which the victims were subjected. For example, two prisoners were forced to box against each other, and the prison guards beat the one they had betted would win.
If the court believed witnesses, victims of violence, and conclusively demonstrated that all the accused are guilty, the logical question is: why the penalties are not only low, but even lower than the minimum sentence?
Higher sentences for Serbs
In a very similar case in Vukovar, in 2005, six members of the Serbian para-military unit Borovo were convicted for crimes against Croatian soldiers and earned an overall sentence of 49 years in prison. The commander of the prison was sentenced to 14 years, while the lowest sentence, of six years in prison, was inflicted to one of the prison guards.
The judgements issued by the Zagreb court confirms the skepticism over the actual readiness of the Croatian judiciary to deal with those responsible for the crimes committed in the operation Oluja. That ruling, in fact, like many others before when it comes to war crimes trials, shows a clear disparity in the sentences imposed. When Croats are judged for war crimes, the penalties are incomparably lower than those issued against Serbs for a comparable crime. A country that is going to become the 28th member of the European Union on July 1st next year can no longer afford such a practice.
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