Bijeljina's strange silence over war crimes

Author: Merima Husejnovic, Bijeljina
Uploaded: Saturday, 08 November, 2008

Article in BIRN's Justice Report puts local justice in RS under the spotlight, describing how many innocent civilians were murdered in the north-eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, yet the local courts have not filed a single war-crimes indictment.

Since the end of the war, the District Prosecution in Bijeljina, a town in Republika Srpska, has completed work on 30 cases without filing one indictment for war crimes.

Court officials in the town, in north-east Bosnia-Herzegovina, are not apologetic. ‘The District Court in Bijeljina has so far not received a single indictment pertaining to crimes against humanity,’ Radomir Aleksic, president of the Court, says. The Chief Prosecutor, Novak Kovacevic, meanwhile dismisses criticism of the Prosecution from the non-governmental sector, saying too many people ‘have a will to criticize’.

But NGO organizations, mainly representing Bosniak victims of Serb ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns, remain critical. ‘Those who committed war crimes are safe but the victims do not sleep peacefully,’ said Salem Corbo, President of the Return and Sustainable Survival association. ‘They do whatever they can to avoid filing indictments, because if there are no indictments, there can be no verdicts,’ he added. ‘This means that there were no crimes. This closes the circle and helps avoid the issue of responsibility for the actions which were committed.’

His institution, and others based in nearby Tuzla, are conducting their own investigations of crimes that ought to fall under the jurisdiction of the Bijeljina Prosecution and Court. Meanwhile the State Prosecution of Bosnia-Herzegovina has opened five investigations against 16 persons involved in the nearby Batkovic detention camp.

A small town that suffered much

The crimes committed in Bijeljina first received attention in the trial at The Hague that sentenced Momcilo Krajisnik to 27 years' imprisonment in 2006. The verdict pertaining to Bijeljina noted that this was the first municipality ‘conquered by Bosnian Serbs’ in April 1992. The Trial Chamber determined that Serb paramilitaries killed ‘at least 48 civilians’ when they overran the town. However, the Research and Documentation Centre (RDC), a Sarajevo NGO that has compiled a register of all persons killed during the war in Bosnia, puts the death toll much higher. They say some 1,040 people were killed in the town.

Lazar Manojlovic, a journalist who spent the war in Bijeljina, recalls those terrible events. ‘The evil began in Bijeljina,’ he said. ‘April 1992 was the black spot. Over three nights an entire settlement was executed. A policeman told me they used to drive trucks, loaded with corpses, for three days and three nights in a row, and throw them into the Drina.’ Bosnian Serbs set up several detention centres in the area. The most notorious was at Batkovic, established in June 1992. The first-instance verdict on Krajisnik said that up to 1,280 Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats were held there.

Bizarrely, however, the local Prosecution says statements by victims and witnesses are not a sufficient basis for filing indictments. ‘We spoke to some survivors, but in their statements, they said that "This was done by Bosniaks, or by Serbs" and that's all, so we do not have evidence to prove who the direct perpetrators were and who ordered those crimes,’ Novak Kovacevic said.

Besides Bijeljina, the local Prosecution is responsible for the six municipalities of Ugljevik, Lopare, Zvornik, Osmaci, Bratunac and Srebrenica. Data from the RDC suggest that more than 16,000 people were killed in those municipalities, 7,000 in Srebrenica alone.

Sources told Justice Report that six years ago the District Prosecution opened an investigation against a person employed by the police who was suspected of having taken away two young Bosniak men, who then disappeared. Up to date 17 witnesses have been examined. But again, nothing has happened. ‘On the basis of the 17 statements and the available material evidence, we could not confirm with any degree of well-grounded suspicion that this person committed war crimes,’ Prosecutor Kovacevic said.

In his book Masters of Darkness, written on the basis of statements provided by crime survivors or others who lost family members in the war, Jusuf Trbic mentioned this particular case. He said the two abducted men were Faruk Bilalic and Mustafa Salkovic. ‘Their schoolmate, a policeman, took them away. He still works in the police and has been promoted to the rank of inspector. He admits having taken them with him, but says that he released them somewhere. The remains of Faruk Bilalic were found in Mitrovica, while Salkovic's remains have still not been found,’ Trbic noted. ‘You can imagine the situation in Bijeljina, when as a private individual I managed to collect all those data, while the Prosecution, police and Court have not been able to do it,’ Trbic continued.

‘We meet our killers in the streets every day, as many still hold key positions in the town,’ he continued, mentioning Mirko Blagojevic, president of the ‘Vojislav Seselj’ Serbian Radical Party. Trbic said it was Blagojevic who took him from his father-in-law's house to the headquarter of the Serbian paramilitary chief, Zeljko Raznjatovic ‘Arkan’. ‘I spent the night there. While I was there, I saw some people who were killed later. They beat me the entire night. They took me out ten times in order to kill me. But now Blagojevic lives a peaceful life, appearing in public like any other normal citizen and acting as if nothing had happened.’

Justice Report contacted Mirko Blagojevic, who refused to comment. ‘I don't want to speak to you because I am a potential witness at the trial of Vojislav Seselj in The Hague,’ he said. ‘There are many things which I do not want to mention now, but I will talk about them at The Hague.’ Seselj is currently on trial before the Tribunal at The Hague. Before his trial started, his indictment was reduced and, among other things, charges for crimes committed in Bijeljina were deleted. Blagojevic's name was mentioned in the first-instance verdict against Krajisnik, which said he had commanded ‘a local paramilitary formation’ that acted in cooperation with Arkan.

Halting investigations seen as an achievement

Branko Todorovic, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina, says he has long noted the ‘unacceptable behaviour’ of the judiciary in Republika Srpska, which ‘is in a state of lethargy. It is particularly disappointing when ordinary people know who committed crimes in those places, and everyone knows who gave the orders,’ he said. ‘What is of particular concern is that some of the perpetrators hold senior positions. It is possible that they are applying pressure, asking for delays to court processes and letting time do its work,’ Todorovic added.

At present, 11 cases are under investigation by the District Prosecution in Bijeljina. Kovacevic said that he was aware of the dissatisfaction of the NGOs, but said he considered this as pressure on his institution. ‘I feel insulted when they say that we are not doing anything,’ he said. ‘To me, it's an enormous job to reduce the number of suspects from 480 to 130. It means we have released those people and they are no longer suspects. Taking the decision to halt an investigation is just as difficult as filing an indictment.’

Kovacevic further insisted that the District Prosecution did not wish to file ‘ordered’ indictments or do so ‘just to satisfy statistical requirements’. They would file indictments only when confident of a guilty verdict. ‘It is better to release a thousand guilty persons than to sentence one innocent person,’ Kovacevic maintained. He said that filing indictments was further limited by the fact that the Prosecution had to work with reports ‘inherited’ from the wartime period, which were ‘of bad quality’. However, Salem Corbo said that he would ‘soon provide’ the Prosecution ‘with comprehensive material’.

In the meantime, the courts in Tuzla have filed 13 indictments and processed four cases connected with the area covered by the Bijeljina courts. However, Prosecutor Kovacevic criticized the actions of the Cantonal prosecution from Tuzla, saying that they represented a ‘big problem’ for his office. ‘Each prosecution is obliged to take into consideration its zone of responsibility. This is the basic thing, or rule number 1,’ Kovacevic said.

Jasna Subotic, spokesperson of the Cantonal Prosecution in Tuzla, told Justice Report that the Tuzla Prosecution had processed these war-crime indictments because it felt ‘obliged to finalize’ these cases.

One of many murders

One wartime story from Bijeljina concerns Edina Ramicevic, a newly married women killed in Medjasi settlement on 16 January1993, aged 22. According to her mother, Magbula: ‘My daughter and her husband tried to escape to Serbia, but those people took them beside the Drina and killed them all.’ She added: ‘Later, I went to the cemetery, where she was buried. When they exhumed the bodies, the Commission for Search for Missing Persons conducted a blood analysis. A year later they determined that this was my Edina.’ The body of Edina's husband has not been found When she was killed, her mother says, Edina was pregnant and ‘screamed "Don't [kill me], I’m pregnant", but they still killed her’.

In April 1995, the Lower Court in Bijeljina sentenced seven persons for the murder and complicity in the murder of Edina Ramicevic, her husband Nedzad Kurtovic and 12 other persons, including three children. The indictment did not mention it as a war crime, however. Branko Djuric was jailed for 14 years and 10 months, Zoran Pantic to 10 years and 10 months, Zeljko Lakic and Vukadin Karolic for six years each, Nikola Kovacevic to four-and-a-half years, Rade Novakovic to three-and-a-half years and Zoran Tesanovic to three years.

They were all about 20 years old. The Court admitted this fact as a mitigating circumstance, as well as the fact that they were ‘members of the Republika Srpska Army’. In the course of the investigation Branko Djuric said that he shot at the ‘Muslims who were running away’. The verdict noted: ‘Justifying his behaviour... he said he had suffered many things during the course of the war, did not have any income, his house had been burnt down, he had seen many crimes committed by Croats and Muslims, and he hated all Muslims and Croats, even women and children.’

Merima Husejnovic is a journalist (merima@birn.eu.com) for

Justice Report, a weekly online BIRN publication. This article appeared in

                                                                                       Justice Report, 30 October 2008

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