THE HAGUE | 10.05.2011.
The Judgment of the Croatian Generals (9)

WHY IVAN CERMAK WAS ACQUITTED

Judge Orie’s Trial Chamber found there was not enough evidence to show that General Cermak’s activities after Operation Storm were directed at implementing the objective of the joint criminal enterprise. The Trial Chamber concluded that Cermak did not have significant power over the army and the police in Knin, which was his area of responsibility

General Ivan Cermak was charged together with generals Gotovina and Markac as a participant in the joint criminal enterprise aimed at ‘expelling Serbs from Krajina through persecution, murder, deportation, looting, arson and other crimes against civilians and their property. While the Trial Chamber convicted Gotovina and Markac, it didn’t find sufficient evidence of Cermak’s responsibility. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 and Markac to 18 years in prison.

Cermak didn’t participate in Operation Storm. In line with President Tudjman’s order of 5 August 1995, Cermak was appointed commander of the Knin Garrison and was sent to the liberated territory. In this capacity, Cermak was part of the military hierarchy and was, albeit only on paper, subordinated to the commander of the Split Military District Ante Gotovina, the judgment notes. The Trial Chamber took into consideration various documents showing that Cermak, on his arrival in Knin, issued orders to the Croatian Army units, including the orders seeking that some soldiers be resubordinated to him, but the Trial Chamber concluded there ‘is limited evidence showing that such orders were effective’.

The prosecution argued that Cermak had jurisdiction over the military and civilian police and as such could prevent and investigate crimes. A number of Cermak’s orders to the military police were admitted into evidence, such as the order requiring an investigation into the allegations about a vehicle stolen from the UN mission in Knin. At the same time, some military police officials, such as the former commander of the Knin joint military police company Bosko Dzolic, came to court to disclaim their previous statements that Cermak was their superior. This led the judges to decide that General Cermak’s authority over the military police ‘is not clear’. The judgment also notes that, under the Croatian law, a garrison commander had some ‘limited authority’ over the military police ‘although they were not subordinated to him’. In their evidence, high-ranking international observers claimed that Cermak promised them he would issue orders to the military police to deal with the complaints against Croatian soldiers. The Trial Chamber nevertheless found that Cermak did not 'despite how he represented himself in that regard' have the authority to issue orders to the military police.

Although Cermak didn’t have jurisdiction over the civilian police on paper, the judges concluded that he was able to influence their work by virtue of his position and the ‘charisma or authority that accompanies the rank of Colonel General’. Having considered the evidence, the judges concluded that Cermak’s influence on the civilian police was ‘not pervasive or constant’. Seven orders that Cermak issued to the police during the relevant period were admitted in the evidence. The Trial Chamber considered the opinion of defense expert Christopher Albiston, who said that if Cermak did have de facto command over the police during this period he would have expected to see 'a significant volume of orders, instructions and requirements for reports as to what exactly was being done'. According to the available evidence, this was not the case.

The Trial Chamber concluded that Cermak’s role in Knin amounted to ‘cleaning up Knin, improving hygienic conditions, providing a public soup kitchen, making the hospital operational, reconnecting water and electricity to the town’ and other civilian tasks. As the judgment notes, the transcripts of the meeting between President Tudjman and his minister Jure Radic on 22 August 1995, show that Cermak’s role ‘was linked to the goal of populating the Krajina with Croats rather than Serbs’. However, there is no evidence that Cermak himself was aware of that goal and that he contributed to it apart from making efforts to bring life in the town back to normal.

The evidence the Trial Chamber considered in the judgment shows that Ivan Cermak regularly received reports of the looting and burning of Serb houses, and of killings and other crimes against civilians in the liberated territory. General Forand, UN commander in Sector South pestered Cermak with his reports; his numerous written appeals to the commander of the Knin Garrison were admitted into evidence. In his responses to these appeals, Cermak didn’t deny the crimes or the involvement of Croatian soldiers in them, the Trial Chamber found. What Cermak did in his contacts with the international representatives was to create a false picture that measures were taken to prevent crimes, the Trial Chamber noted. There is no evidence, however, that Cermak did this deliberately.

The only exception was Cermak’s involvement in the events after the murder of some elderly Serbs in the village of Grubori in late August 1995. According to the judges, in his contacts with the media and the international observers, Cermak ‘deliberately denied the crime’ in Grubori but this was not ‘a significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise’. Cermak didn’t attend the Brioni meeting, where the plan to expel Krajina Serbs was put together, and there was no evidence that Cermak worked on implementing the objectives of the plan. This is why the judges found that General Ivan Cermak wasn’t a participant in the joint criminal enterprise headed by President Tudjman. Cermak was acquitted on all counts in the indictment in which he was charged with persecution, deportation, forcible transfer, looting and destruction of property, murder, inhumane acts and cruel treatment.

British lawyers Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins contributed to General Ivan Cermak’s acquittal:they focused on defending their client and not on defending the late president Tudjman, the purity of the ‘Homeland war’ and the legitimacy of Operation Storm.