In Croatia Nobilo does not leave anyone indifferent. While some criticize him for allegedly constantly maligning Croatia in the media, others see in him an advocate of European values in the judiciary, as well as in politics. He is among few public personalities in Croatia who claim that Croatia did attack Bosnia-Hercegovina, and unlike the overwhelming majority of Croats, Nobilo does not believe that the indictment of Gotovina affects the credibility of the Homeland War.
NEZAVISNE NOVINE: Croatia has been disturbed by the recent events. A murder of a Serb man in Karin, explosions in Vukovar, then a threatening letter of a self-declared terrorist organization... Would you care to comment?
NOBILO: Regarding the letter, I am convinced that it was produced by amateurs, most likely by a psychologically disturbed person trying to get attention, and should consequently be ignored. However, events that took place immediately after the local elections are much more serious. Namely, for the first time the return of Serbs to some parts of Croatia produced visible results. Serbs formed a critical mass of voters and managed to win a significant number of seats on local councils. Extremists saw that as a sign that Serbs may take over local authorities in some parts of Croatia. They still stick to the motto - Is that what we fought for? They are still stuck in year 1995: "Serbs are gone, this is an empty space; we have won this territory in the war, it is ours and Serbs will never have it". However, elections for the first time disturbed that picture and we all saw what happened.
There are madmen like that in every country. However, authorities must strike against them. If Croatia did that immediately after the operation "Storm", after the military took control of that territory, all those ugly events that followed would not have happened. Croatian authorities failed the first day after the operation "Storm". After taking military control of the territory, the authorities should have guaranteed safety of all individuals and their property. I hope that they will not fail this time. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct a forceful investigation and find culprits.
In that case, isn't it too early to claim, as the authorities say, that culprits are most likely to come from Serbia?
I cannot comment on that. In theory anything is possible. But, one has to wonder why it is happening now, right after the local elections? Why not six months ago? It makes sense to me that the culprits are Croats. It is obvious that many were surprised by the election results.
The delivery of Gotovina to The Hague is widely perceived as the sole condition for Croatia's entry into the EU, but the truth is that there are others, including reform of the judiciary.
That is true. Joining Europe demands acceptance of the European model of functioning of justice.(...) Why do we in Croatia want to join the EU? It is because we want to have a state fashioned according to EU standards. As we in Croatia are aware that we would need a whole century to accomplish that goal, the simplest and fastest way towards reform is to join the EU, which will dictate accelerated changes and the judicial and every other reform.
Therefore, it is not simply a matter of entry as such, but of the creation of a better state. The reform of the judicial system that this entails is bound to take time.
We in Croatia are faced with the problem of a large number of unsolved court cases, for example. At this moment there are more than a million and five hundred thousand unsolved court cases. Sometimes the parties have to wait for five, ten or more years. It takes years to have a piece of property entered in cadastral records. Among other things, this creates an atmosphere that discourages our citizens and foreign investors alike. Consequently, Europe has focused on and has been pushing the reform of the judiciary, as that is an important facet of the organization of the state, rule of law and European standards.
According to the latest report by Amnesty International, Croatian justice is still influenced by ethnic criteria.
Alas, that is true. We are still burdened by past practice, when many verdicts were delivered in the absence of those charged. I am involved in one such case myself, the case of General Trifunovic, who was sentenced in Varazdin [Croatia] to fifteen years in prison for war crimes, and simultaneously in Belgrade to eleven years essentially for refusing to commit war crimes. The Supreme Court confirmed that verdict in 1993. I have taken on this case at the request of General Trifunovic's daughter. My analysis shows that it was a dishonorable trial, poorly conducted, and the sentence lacks a proper legal basis. Ratomir Cacic, who headed the Varazdin crisis staff [territorial defense] at the time, tells me that General Trifunovic is an honest and honorable man who committed no war crime. He is ready to appear as a witness for the defense. General Trifunovic was in a position to throw 350 tons of steel every minute at the city; had he wished to commit a war crime, Varazdin would no longer exist today. But he saved the city and his soldiers. If the same criteria were applied to the Croatian military, few of their officers would now be at liberty.
Unfortunately, Croatian courts are still guided by ethnic criteria. One needs only to look at the nationality of the prisoners sentenced in accordance with international criminal law. We are talking about some 600 Serbs and only 4 Croats. This intolerable ethnic imbalance appears in the Amnesty International report.
Given this, how do you view the demands of national courts, including those of Croatia, to be allowed to take over certain trials from The Hague?
I believe that these states, including Croatia, ought to regain full sovereignty in the domain of justice. But the very fact that it was necessary to establish a court in The Hague shows the poor quality of the national courts in the region. We must create conditions that would permit them to take responsibility for ensuring a fair trial for all those suspected of committing war crimes, including their own "heroes". That it is the ideal we should strive for. The Croatian government argues that four big courts, those in Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Osijek, are now fully capable of conducting such trials. This is true in principle. But I fear that national criteria would be applied again, i.e. politics would have the final word. As a result, such trials could take one of two extreme forms. They could treat Croats leniently while at the same time being harsh with Serbs. But they could also veer in the opposite direction, i.e. try to anticipate the wishes of The Hague at the expense of the accused. If politics gets involved in one way or the other, that would not be good. I fear this could happen, since being allowed to try these people in Croatia is presented as a supreme political aim. We should nevertheless have a go at it.
How about the Vukovar Three? Both Zagreb and Belgrade want to take charge of their trial. Who do you think should have it?
This is a problem involving legal principles. Croatia believes, as most countries do, that the trial should take place in the place where the crime was committed. And since it took place in Vukovar, then Croatia should have priority. Serbian law, on the other hand, forbids the extradition of Serbian citizens for trial in other countries, with the sole exception of the court in The Hague. If they deliver the accused to The Hague and The Hague delivers them to Croatia, this puts the Serbian government in a difficult position. It would also encourage its non-cooperation with The Hague. The Hague tribunal should decide what the best option is. I fear, however, that public feeling in Croatia is such that the three have already been found guilty. On the other hand, if they are tried in Serbia they could be set free, given that the Serbian public there treats them as national heroes.
The indictment of General Gotovina is perceived in Croatia as an attack on Croatia's right to self-defense. What is your opinion?
I think this is an over-reaction. An indictment cannot change history. I have read the indictment and, although it is poorly constructed in technical terms, I think it is essentially correct. The prosecution's starting point is that individuals headed by President Tudman agreed to, and engaged in, a "criminal enterprise" aimed at ethnic cleansing of the Serbs. It is my belief that the main aim of the operation "Storm" was to liberate parts of Croatia and re-establish Croatian authority in them, and that ethnic cleansing was of secondary importance.
The prosecution, in my view, has defined the group involved too broadly, leading to the impression that all of the Croatian army, the whole of the Croatian government, all the local authorities, etc. united for a criminal purpose. That is not so. The majority of those who took part in the operation neither committed nor had any intention of committing a crime.
On the other hand, someone did commit crimes and in organized manner. There is no doubt about that. It seems that The Hague found it easier to generalize than to establish the actual chain of responsibility. The prosecutors did something similar in the case of Blaskic, when they said that everybody - from Tudman to Blaskic to the last HVO soldier - was involved in ethnic cleansing. We showed, however, that most soldiers behaved correctly, but that there was a separate line of command, going from politicians to special units, which led to the actual crime.
So I believe that this time too the prosecution has generalized too much. The defense should be able to prove that. I think, more generally, that Croatia has focused too much on Carla del Ponte. This is because her views have a decisive influence on Croatia's entry into the EU. The Croatian government, I think, would be well advised to distinguish between her role as prosecutor and her role as judge on whether Croatia is cooperating with the Hague tribunal. Thus in the Blaskic case, for example, we were able to win against her: even though Blaskic was accused of a most terrible crime, those charges could not be proved.
You have probably heard of demands that Bosnia-Hercegovina also charge Croatia with committing aggression [against B-H]. Do you think that would be justified?
There is no doubt that the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina was an inter-state war and that Croatia took part in it. But whether Sarajevo should take Croatia to court is primarily a political question. It is up to the B-H leaders to decide what is best for their country. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that Croatia sent its troops into Bosnia and, what is more important, organized and governed the puppet state of Herceg Bosna as an instrument of its policy.
Lora, Pakracka poljana, Medacki Dzep, Sisak... these place names are associated with crimes which the Croatian courts do not take seriously. Do you see a light at the end of this particular tunnel?
In the case of Pakracka poljana, the proceedings were recently suspended because one of the defendants had toothache. This tells you how serious that court is. In the case of Lora, the original [not guilty] verdict was annulled by the Supreme Court, but no date has been fixed for a new trial. The problem is that justice is part of Croatian society, which is not yet ready to face up to the negative aspects of its recent past. Croatian society, Croatian public opinion and the Croatian political elite must sooner or later condemn the dark sides of Tudman's rule, thus creating the necessary climate for justice to function. Without this the judicial system is feeble. It has failed to produce a leader from its own ranks capable of organizing a battle for the independence of the courts, of the kind that is inscribed in the Croatian constitution. As a result it has been left to the politicians, acting under EU pressure, to secure its rightful place in society. It is only then that we shall see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Your law office is engaged in many cases under consideration by the court in Strasbourg.
Yes, most of them involve terrorist acts. The Strasbourg court is about to deliver its first judgment on the obligation of the Croatian state to pay for damage suffered by its citizens as a result of terrorist attack. I have suggested to Mr. Pupovac [leader of SDSS, a Serb party in Croatia] that he and his parliamentary group should seek to amend the law, so that the state once again becomes responsible for damage done by the army. My office has even drafted the proposed amendments.
The coalition agreement signed by the SDSS and HDZ includes damages for terrorist acts.
It seems that Mr Pupovac has failed to persuade Prime Minister Sanader to support such a bill. Consequently, we have no other choice but to try to set a precedent in Strasbourg by winning the first verdict. I hope that that will happen before the end of the year.
How many cases are there in Strasbourg?
Many. My office has about sixty. We have won almost all cases related to the slow response of Croatian courts. Damages awarded in such cases are usually several thousand Euros. But that is merely a punishment for excessively slow functioning of the judiciary. However, we are working hard on winning a first verdict in Strasbourg obliging the Croatian authorities to pay damages. If Strasbourg rules in our favor, however, the government will most likely seek out-of-court settlements in order to avoid further uncomfortable verdicts.
The fact is that many Serbs fled, but also that their homes were then destroyed in order to prevent their return. Everything implies that that was Tudman's ultimate goal. Ethnic cleansing has thus occurred, and it is necessary to establish who is responsible for it, which individuals. I myself believe that the charge against the Croatian government is justified, in the sense that it was the duty of the Croatian courts to establish who committed crimes during operation Storm, which units and under which commanders.
The Croatian government says that 4,000 people were questioned after the operation Storm.
That is a fairytale. Tudman used to brandish a so-called white book that registered every petty thief who had passed through the area in question. That is nothing. The fact is that not a single key person - i.e. an organizer - has been identified, there are no charges for war crimes against civilians or prisoners of war.