The Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia shows more understanding for officers responsible for war crimes than for the victims of these crimes

In its legally binding ruling of March 11th 2010, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia upheld the acquittal of Rahim Ademi and commuted Mirko Norac’s prison sentence for crimes committed against Serbian civilians and prisoners of war in the Medak pocket (Medački Džep). This caused new anguish for the families of the victims and convinced them that the Court has more empathy for those who commit war crimes than for their victims. From a human rights perspective, it is very difficult to accept the fact that the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia demonstrated more concern for the mental health of the accused Mirko Norac than for the suffering of the victims’ family members. In that regard, the following statement contained in the disposition of the Supreme Court’s ruling that “a high level of exposure to a war environment in circumstances of conducting a legitimate defensive war against the aggressor, lead to damage to his mental health which affected his ability to show good judgment” has political implications which should be avoided by any court.

The Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia did not rectify the main shortcoming of the decision handed down by the County Court of Zagreb which established that Rahim Ademi, who issued all relevant orders for the Džep ‘93 operation, including the order to attack and actively participated in all preparation for this operation as well as the withdrawal of the Croatian Army, was not part of the command structure. The Supreme Court accepted the decision of the first-instance court which established that war crimes had been committed against Serbian civilians and prisoners of war in Medački Džep in September 1993 but failed, just like the County Court of Zagreb, to consider the gravity of the criminal act and the responsibility of the accused which consequently resulted in the acquittal of Rahim Ademi.

This criminal case was handed over to the Croatian judiciary by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). On May 30th 2008 the County Court of Zagreb in its first instance ruling acquitted Rahim Ademi of all charges brought against him and acquitted Mirko Norac on one count of the indictment – being guilty of ordering an attack without previously specifying a target which resulted in the demise of civilians and the destruction of their property. Norac was however found guilty on two counts of the indictment: failure to prevent the commitment of a crime thus allowing and encouraging the killing of civilians and looting their property and responsibility for the killing and torture of the prisoners of war. He was sentenced to five years in prison for each count. These two prison sentences for individual offences were combined into a unified prison sentence of seven years.

The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor failed to prove that Ademi and Norac exercised actual command authority over a special police unit which was responsible for the killing of a large number of Serbian civilians. Namely, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor raised a direct indictment and insisted that the Džep ’93 operation was a legitimate military operation and considered it an alleviating circumstance for the crime in question and accused Ademi and Norac not as commanding officers who ordered the crime but accusing them of failing to prevent the crime. The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor showed no interest in discovering the names of the other commanding officers and direct perpetrators of the crime in Medački Džep for the purpose of bringing them to justice, even though the contents of the prosecutor’s case-in-chief pointed to a number of other persons, members of various military formations. An additional investigation would have disclosed the names of other responsible commanding officers and direct perpetrators of crimes such as deliberate house-burning and detonation of houses, killing the elderly, hiding and burning of desecrated bodies, and knife-throwing at a still-living Serbian soldier hanging from a tree.