A Croatian general whose trial for war crimes provoked much controversy among nationalists, who accounted him a hero for defending the country during the wars in Yugoslavia of the 1990s. After a two-year trial, he was convicted in March 2003, making him the most senior officer to be found guilty of war crimes by a Croatian court.

Theatre of War

Norac was born in 1968 in the village of Otoka, and his career path through the Croatian army would almost have made one Napoleon Bonaparte appear unmotivated: he may even have been the youngest general since Francisco Franco. Otoka is close to the town of Sinj, part of the Dalmatian hinterland; when war broke out in 1991 as the JNA resisted Croatia's secession from Yugoslavia, the nearby Lika became one of the major theatres of war.

The victory of Franjo Tuđman, the founder of the new Croatian-nationalist party HDZ, in Croatia's first multi-party elections in 1990 had appeared, to the Serbs who lived in the Krajina region of the Dalmatian hinterland, to threaten their own well-being. By August 1990, Serb unrest became full-scale rebellion, as they declared a breakaway Republic of the Krajina.

Memories of the 1940s, in which the fascist Independent State of Croatia had been responsible for many killings of Serbs, Jews and Roma, were revived in the Krajina, in no small part due to the discussions of Yugoslavia's painful World War II history which had been resumed after the death of Josip Broz Tito, who had subsumed the wartime experience into one myth of liberation by his Communist resistance force, the Partisans.

Tuđman was not able to call upon the military resources of the JNA, which operated in alliance with Slobodan Milošević and intervened in the Krajina conflict - and a similar one taking place to the east in Slavonia - in the name of the Yugoslavian federation. Instead, the Croatian army was formed on the basis of policemen given paramilitary training, arms imported from Hungary on the quiet, and whatever could be rustled up from blockaded JNA barracks in Slavonia.

Norac volunteered for the Croatian army and was assigned to operations against rebel Serbs, reinforced by the JNA, attacking the town of Gospić, in the Lika. In command of a small platoon, Norac successfully defended the town and was rewarded by a promotion giving him responsibility for the whole of the Lika, becoming the youngest colonel in 1993.

One Night In Gospić

The charges subsequently laid against him relate to the night of October 16, 1991, on which some 40 of Gospić's Serbs were rounded up and killed by firing squads made up of masked soldiers and paramilitaries: one journalist working for the anti-Tuđman weekly Feral Tribune described it in 2001 as Gospić's Kristallnacht.

Marica Barac, whose husband Radovan was found dead several months later with five bullet wounds and burns to his thighs, testified on Radio Knin, the Krajina Serbs' station, that a man she later discovered to be Norac came to her door at midnight to arrest Radovan and his mother Danica. The statement was recorded by a Croat, Milan Levar, who later compiled a dossier of war crimes allegations against Croatian soldiers and delivered it to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

Norac's arrest in February 2001 arose from an investigation into six men from Gospić and their involvement in the October killings: Ivan Grandić, the commander of the Perušić barracks, claimed that Norac had ordered him to form a firing squad and had contributed some men of his own. He refused to turn up to a court appearance in Rijeka, citing his fear that the domestic trial would lead to his indictment by The Hague instead.

Throughout his presidency, which lasted until his death in 1999, Tuđman had denied that The Hague could have any jurisdiction over Croatian soldiers since they had been fighting a defensive war and, for Tuđman, sustaining Croatia's independence was the uppermost value. Such was his antipathy to the tribunal that he even refused to release evidence relating to the Serb shelling of Zadar.

His successor, the centre-left Stipe Mesić, had made it a priority to co-operate with the court, drawing strong criticism from the remnants of Tuđman's HDZ. In September 2000, he had sacked twelve generals for publicising an open letter attacking his policy: Norac had been the most prominent of the dozen.

'We Are All Mirko Norac'

With pro-nationalist media such as the newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija - Free Dalmatia - at their side, a series of demonstrations and roadblocks were organised by Norac's defenders and veterans of the Domovinski rat, the Homeland War. To them, Norac symbolised their comrades' heroism in the conflict that lasted until 1995. The slogan, 'We are all Mirko Norac', became a common graffito on Croatian walls - replied to, on one occasion, with 'We are all Carla del Ponte', a reference to The Hague's chief prosecutor.

The Norac controversy reached its peak on February 14, 2001, when some 100,000 people gathered on the waterfront of the Dalmatian city of Split to protest against his arrest warrant. The meeting was addressed by an assortment of veterans' leaders, HDZ hopefuls and politicians from the further right, and serenaded by the Dalmatian singer Mladen Grdović. The keynote speaker, Mirko Čondić from the veterans' association HVIDRA, thanked the bishop and Hajduk Split FC for their support, and proclaimed to Mesić that 'You will not put the legend of the Homeland War on trial'.

Hot on Čondić's heels was a representative of the annual Alka festival in Sinj, in equal parts a jousting competition and folkloric frenzy, and the kind of event in which Tuđman took great pride. The ex-president, in fact, had been its regular guest of honour, holding the ceremonial title of Duke of the Alka; he had been succeeded by none other than local boy Norac.

Supposedly, Norac attended the rally himself, underneath a giant placard reading 'I am Mirko Norac'. In an interview with Slobodna Dalmacija the same day, he promised that he would give himself up in return for a pledge that he would not be sent to The Hague.

A follow-up demonstration on February 19 in the main square of the capital Zagreb had been expected to attract a similar crowd, but in fact only 10,000 turned up, leading to speculation that many of the audience in Split had jumped on the bus for the short journey across the border with Bosnia and Hercegovina, where the HDZ's sister party had remained strong.

Norac kept his promise and turned himself in on February 22, pleading not guilty and beginning a two-year trial which encompassed the testimony of some 150 witnesses. The presiding judge, Ika Sarić, said that Norac had escaped justice for so long thanks to a conspiracy of silence, and convicted him not only of ordering the executions but of shooting one woman himself. Large demonstrations outside the courthouse greeted the verdict, for which Norac was sentenced to a twelve-year jail term.

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