Theatre, hysterics, denunciations. No tight, orderly and sterile space could ever entirely contain those dark characters with lengthy butcher’s bills and blood soaked attributes. Screams accompanied accusations; words to make all blush were shouted at witnesses, lawyers and judges.
In the sanguinary mess of attack, counter-attack and retribution, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was meant to rise, glinting above the squalor, peering over with a sort of moral responsibility. Its effects after it closes on December 31 this year will be debated for decades, leaving perhaps the lawyers content that something was done to bring acts of conflict into the court room. The narratives on the ground will, in large part, remain untouched, mutating into various poisonous guises.
Coming to its grim finale, it was fitting that the curtain would close on a publicly executed suicide by Bosnian Croat wartime commander Slobodan Praljak, a figure most closely associated with the destruction of Mostar, a gem of Bosnia’s Ottoman legacy. “I just drank poison,” he exclaimed, having seemingly toasted those deemed his adversaries. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.” The 72 year old subsequently died in hospital in The Hague.
It had been quite a scene, a live broadcast that was garnering special interest. Croatia’s parliament, for one, had been suspended to enable members to follow the reading of the verdict, along with those of five other Bosnian Croats: Jadranko Prlić, who had presided over the Croatian territory in Bosnia, along with military and police figures Bruno Stojić, Milivoj Petrović, Valentin Ćorić and Berislav Pušić. Altogether, it was considered the most voluminous appeal the ICTY had heard.
All similarly heard their convictions upheld spanning the whole gamut from crimes against humanity, violating the customs of war to the destruction of property, deportation, unlawful transfer of civilians, and wilful killing.
The biggest bone of contention, as it has been from the start, centred on that ever problematic concept of a criminal conspiracy or joint criminal enterprise connecting the participants and the authorities of President Franjo Tuđman.
The object of the conspiracy – the “ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population” – was brutal and, in parts, persecuted with gruesome effect. The vision of the perpetrators, more broadly, was the creation of a cleansed, ethnically appropriate “Greater Croatia” comprising Croatian Banovina, a point acknowledged in the Trial Chamber findings.
With the poison taking effect, Presiding Judge Carmel Agius immediately went into prim and proper mode. “We suspend the… We suspend… Please, the curtains. Don’t take away the glass that he used when he drank something.” The courtroom was duly declared, ironically enough, a crime scene. The place where justice was supposedly delivered with cold application had itself succumbed to the drama of crime.
In Mostar, candles of contemplation and prayer were lit for Praljak in acts of traditional historical dysfunction. (The general had been found to have “caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim population” through such acts as the destruction of the 16th Century Stari Most or Old Bridge in November 1993). Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković told a press conference how “we have all unfortunately witnessed his act by which he took his own life”.
Plenković demonstrates how far judicial rulings of his sort have penetrated into the consciousness of the judged and the broader collectives who participated and suffered in the wars of 1992-1995. Taking it in his stride, the prime minister insisted that Praljak’s act “speaks mainly of the deep moral injustice towards the six Croatians from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian people.” Yes, the government did express “sympathy for all victims of all the crimes committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina” but felt “dissatisfaction and regret regarding the confirmed verdicts for the six [who were on trial]”.
Traditional defences reared their head, suggesting that the court had erred. The efforts of the six men were part of cruel necessity, an act of heroic salvation. The Republic of Croatia had also assisted “at a time it was faced with Greater Serbian aggression, and when its territorial independence was compromised.” Emergency is the cruel mother of invention.
Deals were struck, military partnerships forged between the Bosnian Croats and the Croatian military to intervene at key points. The Serbian siege of Bihać, he cites, was frustrated and broken, thereby preventing “the most serious of crimes and genocide such as what happened at Srebrenica.”
This theme is a common one, a point of false difference that is meant to distinguish the Croatian mission during the civil wars from those of their Serbian and Bosniak counterparts. While the Muslims were given short shrift in some parts, and butchered in others, the Croatian cause stood firm, thereby avoiding genocide at the hands of their enemies. The essence of the ICTY is thereby turned on its head: in perpetrating atrocities, according to this skewed angle inimical to law, people were saved.
Even more brazenly, Plenković insisted that the Croatian Army be more broadly thanked, along with the Croatian state that actually supported Bosnia and Herzegovina. “The Croatian Army freed a large part of Bosnia and Herzegovina territory, thus halting the war and allowing for the possibility for the Paris-Dayton peace agreement.”
Gaps and omissions fill the account. The efforts to remove Bosniaks (or Muslim Bosnians), initiated by the Croatian leadership, is not mentioned. Irritably, the Croatian prime minister reverts to a traditional theme: blame Serbia when the spotlight shines brightly on Croatian exploits. It was “absurd that no international verdict has established the responsibility of Serbia’s then state leadership.” The move to challenge that account with the narrative of rescue and heroism has begun.