A Bosnian Croat general accused of leading the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims went to heroic lengths to prevent the deaths, his lawyer said Tuesday at the opening of his U.N. war crimes trial.
Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, the highest-ranking suspect to face justice before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, is charged with leading an ethnic purge of the Lasva Valley in central Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and 1993 that killed hundreds of Muslims and destroyed their homes and mosques.
Prosecutor Mark Harmon accused Blaskic, 36, of leading his troops in a rampage in which “whole Muslim villages were razed to the ground and their populations were driven from the territory he controlled.”
“Our evidence will show that Gen. Blaskic . . . was fully aware of his obligations under international law and that he ignored them or was indifferent to them in his determination to achieve Croat domination in central Bosnia,” Harmon said during opening arguments.
In a 20-count indictment, Blaskic is charged with responsibility for atrocities committed by his troops--including many carried out “within minutes of his headquarters,” according to Harmon.
But Blaskic’s American attorney, Russell Hayman, argued that his client was not behind atrocities committed by “extremist elements” and instead made “heroic efforts” to prevent them.
Blaskic, who turned himself in last year claiming he would prove his innocence, appeared confident and calm during Tuesday’s hearing, writing copious notes on a leather-bound note pad. If convicted, he will face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Among the attacks Blaskic is accused of was the torching of the Muslim village of Ahmici in which 96 civilians--including women, children and elderly men--were killed.
Prosecutors have a list of 300 potential witnesses, and Harmon said he will also produce orders from Blaskic telling his troops to destroy Muslim villages.
But Hayman told reporters after the hearing that in thousands of pages of prosecution material “there is not one shred of evidence that Gen. Blaskic ever ordered attacks on civilians or the destruction of civilian property.”
The first witness, U.S. historian Robert Donia, began describing the historical roots of the Bosnian conflict Tuesday for the three-judge panel. Donia’s testimony is expected to last most of the week.
Blaskic was a colonel in the Bosnian Croat militia at the time of the alleged atrocities and was later promoted to general. The day after his indictment, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman promoted him to a senior post in Croatia’s army, drawing international criticism.