Belgrade appoints controversial war crimes prosecutor
by Dejan Anastasijevic and Jovan Dulovic
At the end of July, on the government's recommendation, the Serbian assembly appointed Vladimir Vukčević to the newly established post of special prosecutor for war crimes. In doing so the authorities wished to give the impression that, three years after the events of 5 October [2000 - when Milošević fell], it was finally ready to deal with this appalling and delicate issue. However, a closer look at Vukčević's past performance suggests that his main qualification for the post is not his dedication to the cause of justice, but rather his complete loyalty to both the former and the current regimes.
‘Serbian Carla del Ponte'
According to minister of justice Vladan Batić, 'Vukčević is better qualified than Carla del Ponte as a war crimes prosecutor'. Vukčević himself says that his first case will be 'Ovčara': the murder of over two hundred Croats taken prisoner after the fall of Vukovar. Three former JNA officers with command responsibility are awaiting trial in The Hague on account of this crime, but the prosecution of several of the direct perpetrators, arrested during Operation Sabre, has been left to the Serbian judiciary.
Vukčević's official biography, published in Politika, shows him as a career-minded, Belgrade-born lawyer who has spent thirty years within the judicial system. Between 1994 and 2002 he was deputy public prosecutor for the district of Belgrade, after which he became first deputy to the republic's public prosecutor. Neither Batić nor Vukčević, however, has felt it necessary to mention his role in the well-known Grmeč case. This has to do with an explosion that took place in 1995 in a Zemun factory of that name, during a secret and illegal (given the nature of the factory) attempt to manufacture rocket fuel. The work was carried out under the direction of the head of the state security service Jovica Stanišić and of his deputy Radoslav Lukić Luketa, acting under the orders of Slobodan Milošević. Others who took part in this enterprise were Grmeč director Rajko Umočanin and several individuals from the private firm JPL Systems, headed by one Radoslav Čobanin. Most of those who died were unaware of the nature of the operation. Čobanin and his collaborators were arrested in 2002 for attempting to sell the rocket fuel, as well as production plans for pilotless planes, to Saddam Hussein (the 'Orao' affair).
All these facts were established thanks to an investigation conducted by Vreme journalists and the victims' families. The official investigation headed by Vukčević, on the other hand, did its best to cover up what had happened, in order to protect the Serbian president and his all-powerful security service from responsibility for this tragedy. The trial was concluded by the scandalous verdict of judge Života Đoinčević on 3 October 2000 [!] that no one was really responsible, since the work had been carried out 'by order of the president of the republic and the head of the state security service'. Đoinčević's verdict, which Vukčević accepted without complaint, was quashed in December 2002, and a re-trial is still awaited. Đoinčević himself was arrested during Operation Sabre and charged with corruption and illegal possession of weapons. The charge of corruption has in the meantime been quashed, and the judge given bail pending his trial.
By order from on high
Vukčević himself was promoted, although his responsibility for covering up the causes of the explosion and for protecting those responsible was at least equal to Đoinčević’s. Mihajlo Mučibabić, who is the father of one of the victims, states that for the first six months Vukčević simply sat on the case, insisting that it was outside his area of responsibility yet refusing to pass it to a lower instance. 'The prosecutor's behaviour was such', Mučibabić says, 'that I decided to break off all contact with him.’ He adds that between June 1995 and June 1998 Vukčević did not question any eyewitness, while refusing to show key documents to the interested parties - such as forensic evidence and the statements made by the suspects. On the eve of the trial, moreover, he ordered that the investigation documents be treated as state secrets and sealed ‘by virtue of the state of war’ - which had not, in fact, been proclaimed. 'It was clear to me', Mučibabić says, 'that he was following orders from on high. He was not alone in this.'
Rajko Danilović, the lawyer acting for the victims' families, agrees that Vukčević’s conduct was scandalous. 'For years Vukčević was obstructing the process and doing everything to make it lapse', he says. 'He did this on the order of Jovica Stanišić and the state security service. He has always obeyed the authorities.' Asked to comment on Vukčević’s appointment as special prosecutor for war crimes, Danilović's reply was: 'I have a very low opinion of him.'
Mučibabić says he was astonished to learn of Vukčević’s new appointment. 'I asked myself how minister Batić could have possibly chosen him, given that he is well acquainted with the Grmeč affair.' In 1996, while Batić was in opposition, he even wrote an article in Naša Borba on this subject. And not only that. In July of this year the victims' families, as soon as they heard of the government's recommendation, wrote to Batić to remind him of Vukčević’s role in the affair. They received a brief reply stating they should petition Serbia's supreme court - although it is not at all clear what possible connection this court has with Vukčević’s appointment.
Batić has told Vreme that, given that the explosion in Grmeč took place many years ago, it is not surprising that he could not remember who the prosecutor was at the time. His respect for Vukčević nevertheless remains unimpaired. 'I do not feel critical of the prosecutor, for he behaved quite correctly. He ordered a forensic investigation to be carried out and heard dozens of testimonies. It was the state that was involved in Grmeč; the prosecutor himself cannot invent a charge', says Batić. 'The man is respectable and the whole parliament voted for him, including even DSS.' The minister concluded by expressing his regrets for the tragedy and promised to speed up the case against Umčanin, Čobanin and the others, who are due to go on trial this autumn before the Belgrade district court.
The question remains, however, whether a man who up to now has shown such understanding and indeed zeal where state interests are concerned can be expected to pursue war criminals, who as we all know like to justify their deeds by reference to those very same interests. In the cases which Vukčević himself quotes with pride (the so-called Makin group, charged with the murder of General Boško Buha; the traffic accident in the Terazije tunnel, when four people were killed; and the triple murder on the Zrenjanin road) he could not have offended anyone in government. In the notorious case of the kidnapping and murder of eleven Bosniaks in Sjeverin in 1992, however, only two minor perpetrators have been put on trial, while the first on the list of the accused, Milan Lukić, is still at large and there is no evidence that Vukčević has followed numerous indications showing that the kidnapping was organized in Belgrade, as part of a failed plan to exchange those abducted for members of a special Serbian unit captured in the Goražde area. Vukčević also failed to seek out why Lukić, who at one point was arrested in Belgrade, was then transferred to Republika Srpska, where he was decorated and allegedly still lives.
Vukčević is not himself a war criminal, of course, and he appears also to be a good lawyer. He is not the only one to have made his career by obeying those in power. He is not a problem but rather a symptom of the government's determination to prevent at all costs the possibility of justice endangering its own interests.
Translated from Vreme (Belgrade), 7 August 2003