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Just over 26 years ago, on November 18, 1991, as Yugoslavia edged towards collapse, the establishment of the Croatian Community Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia was proclaimed – an unrecognised, Croat-led political entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This was followed in August 1993 by the declaration of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, which claimed around 30 per cent of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Between April and May 1992, the authorities in the unrecognised, Croat-led Herzeg-Bosnia also created the Croatian Defence Council, HVO as their army, according to the indictment of six of its leading figures.
Those six men now await the verdict in their appeal against their convictions for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague on Wednesday.
The first-instance verdict in 2013 sentenced Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoje Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic to a total of 111 years in jail.
In the indictment, Prlic is named as the most powerful figure in the Herzeg-Bosnia government and the HVO in 1992 and 1993.
Prlic was named the commander of the HVO’s finance division in May 1992, and when Herzeg-Bosnia was declared a republic in August 1993, he was the unrecognised entity’s first prime minister.
At the start of the Bosnian war in 1992, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks fought side by side against the Serbs. However, in late 1992 a conflict erupted between the two sides, which ended in 1994 with the signing of the Washington Accord.
After the fighting ended, Prlic became deputy prime minister and defence minister of the Bosnia’s Federation entity. In February 2001 he was appointed Bosnia’s foreign minister, and later deputy minister for economic relations.
Along with the other five men, he surrendered voluntarily to the Hague Tribunal to face trial.
They were convicted of involvement in a campaign of persecution against Bosniaks and Croats in Herzegovina and central Bosnia, which included killings, rapes, inhumane treatment, illegal detentions, the destruction of cultural facilities and the terrorising of civilians.
The crimes – committed in Mostar, Capljina, Ljubuski, Prozor, Stolac, Vares, Gornji Vakuf and Jablanica – were classified by the Tribunal as crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war and violations of the Geneva conventions.
However the six men deny they were part of a joint criminal enterprise against Bosniaks and insist they were simply protecting Croats’ interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A better life in Mostar
After getting his doctorate in economics in Mostar in the early 1980s, Prlic went to the US to work. He could have stayed, but decided against it.
“I was a young doctor and I had a future. I knew English, but my decision process lasted five minutes; the basic criteria was quality of life, which was much better in Mostar than it could have been anywhere else in the US,” Prlic explained in an interview during the war.
He forged a political career and became a professor at the Mostar Law and Economics Faculty. One of his former students, Gordan Radic, recalls him as eloquent and capable.
“I met him as a first-year student in Mostar. He was a professor of economics, a man of wide-ranging perception who could really hold students’ attention,” recalled Radic, who is now dean of the Herzegovina Faculty of International Relations.
“He had an ability to make these economics lectures of economy interesting, just as the times we were living in were interesting,” added Radic.
In 1992, he travelled to the US again; when he returned to Mostar, fighting was under way in the town and he joined the HVO.
In court alongside Prlic on Wednesday will be Bruno Stojic, who in September 1992 was a member of the HVO crisis centre, which later become its main headquarters.
According to the indictment, on April 16, 1992, the Croatian Army, headed by General Janko Bobetko, installed Stojic as the acting commander for logistical support at the Grude command center.
In late 1993, Stojic was named the head of the Herzeg-Bosnia office for manufacturing and distributing weapons. As head of the office, which would later become a ministry, Stojic was one of the top HVO officers.
According to the charges, he was in charge of the HVO’s security and intelligence forces, morale in the military and propaganda activities. He was supervised the medical and health services in the detention centres run by Herzeg-Bosnia’s forces.
The indictment alleged that Stojic had effective control over the detention sites, either completely or partially, through co-defendant Valentin Coric, who was in charge of the Bosnian Croat military police. After the war, Stojic became director of the Dubrovacka Bank in Mostar.
Coric had been an engineer and head of a mine in the town of Citluk, as well as a karate expert. Around the start of the conflict, he was put in charge of organising equipment and ammunition at a Croat military centre in the town. Later he was named commander of the Kravice training centre in Croatia, where, according to the charges, around 800 soldiers from Herzeg-Bosnia were trained.
In April 1992, he was appointed deputy for security of the Bosnian Croat military police.
“He was a man who never looked at whether you were a Serb, a Croat, a Muslim. He looked at if you were a man,” said Zdenko Andabak, who met Coric when he was named military police chief in Livno.
“He was always strict,” said Zvonko Vidovic, who was asked by Coric in September 1992 to run the crime division of the military police. Coric was looking for people to run things “more seriously”, Vidovic said.
Vidovic became one of Coric’s trusted aides.
“He asked the military police to fight crime and I think he managed that. The HVO soldiers who committed crimes, we prosecuted them,” said Vidovic.
In November 1993, Coric was named interior minister of Herzeg-Bosnia.
An intellectual in uniform
Milivoje Petkovic, who was the HVO’s general commander, is also awaiting his judgment in The Hague on Wednesday.
Petkovic attended the Yugoslav People’s Army’s military academy, then became a divisional commander at the Zadar school for reserve officers, and later a teacher at the artillery school.
“My experience with him was very positive. He was an intellectual, had a wide spectrum of hobbies and he was low-key. I never saw him get upset. He acted nicely towards his subordinates, said Mirsad Catovic, a former deputy to Petkovic in Zadar.
Catovic also said that he was surprised that Petkovic ever fought in Bosnia, since he was not a man for conflict.
But in the summer of 1991, Petkovic joined the Croatian Army in Sibenik and the following spring, he was deployed to Grude, where he became the commander of the HVO’s main headquarters.
Petkovic was replaced as commander of the HVO’s main headquarters by Slobodan Praljak, but after serving as Praljak’s deputy for a while, he returned to the commander’s role.
Petkovic would later become the Croatian Army’s chief inspector.
From TV studios to battlefield
Slobodan Praljak, the other former commander of the HVO’s main headquarters, is also awaiting his final verdict in The Hague. He was born in Capljina in Bosnia and Herzegovina but become an engineer in Zagreb. He worked as a theatre, film and television producer.
Before the war he produced a television show called ‘The Silly Man and the Tulip’, a documentary entitled ‘The Death of a Dog’ and a film called ‘The Return of Katarina Kozul’.
In the summer of 1991 he joined the Croatian military, and by 1992 he was assistant to the Croatian defence minister and later one of 14 members of the Croatian national defence guard. In 1993 he was named the HVO’s commander, but left at his own request.
Bosnian Croats who know Praljak describe him in superlatives.
“He is a human and moral rock of a man. I can only speak of him in the best terms,” said Mario Karamatic, a lawmaker in the Bosnian parliament.
However, Bosniaks do not share the same view. Catovic attended a meeting with Praljak after violence in the town of Prozor.
“I saw him there and he did not leave a good impression. He seemed to underestimate us. We were at lunch after the meeting and he failed to implement anything we agreed on,” said Catovic.
The final defendant awaiting his verdict on Wednesday in The Hague is Berislav Pusic, who was the president of the commission in charge of the HVO’s prisons and detention sites.
He became involved in the HVO in 1992 and later became involved with the Bosnian Croat force’s cooperation with UN peacekeepers.
All the defendants handed themselves over to the Hague Tribunal in 2004.
Before leaving for The Hague, Prlic said: “I don’t see myself going to The Hague to fight for a better past, but for a better future.”
On Wednesday, the court will decide what his future will be.