Acquitted in Court, Still Blacklisted by the U.S.

Acquitted in Court, Still Blacklisted by the U.S.

Even though he won his case in an appeals court over a year ago, former Croatian general Ante Gotovina is still stuck on a U.S. government blacklist.

That’s a problem for the former military man because — having put the war crimes charges behind him — he wants to get into the fishing business.

Gotovina was put on the list by President George W. Bush in 2003 because he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He was accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Balkan war in the 1990s. Gotovina was a fugitive at the time, but much has changed since then. In 2005, he was arrested in the Canary Islands; then he stood trial and was convicted in 2011; and in November 2012, that decision was overturned on appeal. Now, Gotovina is a free man.

Gotovina, who lives in Croatia, recently invested in a tuna farming company and has secured a loan from a Croatian bank, according to local press reports. But the big market for tuna isn’t Croatia; it’s Japan. Therein lies the rub. It’s difficult — if not impossible — to do international business deals while under economic sanctions from the United States. The sanctioned person’s assets can be frozen if they are sent to an international bank, and it’s illegal for U.S. companies to do business with anyone on the list.

"In theory, if you sent a hundred dollars to him, you would be in breach of sanctions," said Josko Paro, the Croatian ambassador to the United States.

Gotovina’s case highlights the broad, unilateral power of the U.S. sanctions regime. There is no judge or objective authority that reviews the designations or culls the list. A small office in the Department of the Treasury, under the authority of the president, is in charge of putting people on the list. If you want to be off the list, you have to petition the same office. Petitioners aren’t entitled to a hearing, to see the evidence against them, or even to a prompt response. People trying to get off the list often wait years for a decision.

The U.S. sanctions program has evolved from broad trade embargoes, like the one against Cuba, to a much more targeted approach. Individuals are often singled out for supporting dictatorships, trading illegal weapons, or benefiting from the international drug trade. This new approach has been very successful at applying pressure to terrorist organizations and drug cartels. Most recently, it has been credited with bringing Iran to the table to negotiate over its nuclear program.

But Gotovina’s case isn’t the first one to highlight the lack of recourse, or at least timely recourse, for people put on the list. For instance, several people have been taken off the United Nations sanctions list for lack of evidence, but remain on the U.S. list. Saudi businessman Yassin Abdullah Kadi, who was sanctioned by the U.N. and the United States for his alleged association with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, remains on the U.S. list even though the U.N. and the European courts have taken him off. Other people have been sentenced to prison in other jurisdictions or have died, but their names remain on the list. Bin Laden, for instance, is still on the U.S. rolls.

Gotovina’s defense attorney at the U.N. tribunal, Greg Kehoe, said he doesn’t know of any other reason that his former client would be on the list. He said others who were acquitted at the tribunal were removed immediately.

"Having a situation where everybody is guessing why this person hasn’t been removed from the list — it just doesn’t seem to me to be a fair thing to do," said Kehoe, who is a partner at Greenberg Traurig.

Croatian diplomats have appealed to the U.S. government several times on behalf of Gotovina, who is a national hero in Croatia, before he filed a lawsuit this week. But to no avail.

"There are dire consequences to the business interest of our citizen here," said Paro, the Croatian ambassador.

"I’m surprised this matter was not handled diplomatically, and that it went to litigation," said attorney Mark Vlasic, a former prosecutor at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and an attorney with Madison Law & Strategy Group.

Gotovina’s lawyers sued on Monday, Jan. 6, to get a court to compel the U.S. government to make a decision about his case. They say they petitioned the Treasury Department in April and again in August 2013, but have had no substantive response. Since Gotovina’s case has already been tried and the United States has accepted the result, his lawyers say he should already be off the list.

"He shouldn’t have had to hire us to get off the list," said Stephen McHale, a partner at Patton Boggs, a well-connected Washington law firm known for its lobbying and regulatory practice.

"We should never have to even go to them," McHale said. "Our view is they should have done this on their own."

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department office that oversees economic sanctions declined to comment on Gotovina’s case.

If the case goes to court, the judge could toss out the case or order the Treasury Department to take him off the list. Treasury could also decide to rule on his case in the meantime. Until then, he remains in blacklist purgatory.

"We have never received any logical explanation for the delay," said Paro. "The only thing that we have heard is that it takes time."