Interview with Sonja Biserko, victim of a witch-hunt

Author: Vreme
Uploaded: Saturday, 21 December, 2013

A wide-ranging interview with the president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, occasioned by the media witch-hunt being conducted against her, accompanied by death-threats, following the leaking of information that she had agreed to appear as a witness in Croatia's case against Serbia for genocide.

Over the past few weeks, the Belgrade tabloid press has once again been demanding the arrest or even the exile of Sonja Biserko, chairman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Death threats have been made against her, and an atmosphere of witch-hunt created. Reliable sources from ‘official circles’ claim that this is because she might appear as a witness for Croatia before the International Court of Justice, following Croatia’s charge against Serbia for genocide. How did the media ever get such information? Who gave it to them? And will Sonja Biserko really take the stand in The Hague?   ‘It is true that Croatia has invited me to take the stand in a possible genocide trial of Serbia. I don’t see why this should be problematic’, says Sonja Biserko. ‘What is really problematic in my view is the state’s attitude towards citizens who have been invited over past years to testify in the trials of Serbian officials before an international court. Just remember what witnesses against Slobodan Miloševic or Vojislav Šešelj went through; or Milan Babic’s family, which was under constant pressure and unfortunately we all know how that ended.’
Vreme: Just as we know how witnesses against some other persons such as, say, Ramush Haradinaj ended up.
Sonja Biserko: Yes, that’s true… Such treatment of witnesses is not characteristic just of the Balkans or ex-Yugoslavia; there are similar cases all over the world, especially in the trials of Mafiosi or war criminals. This is why – as a measure of precaution – identities of witnesses are kept secret until a trial opens.
How would you say the information about you leaked out?
Given that both parties to the dispute – Serbia and Croatia – submitted lists of their witnesses to the court, I would say that the highest officials were those who leaked the information. In other words, having seen my name on the witness list, someone from Serbia’s team of lawyers passed the information to the top leadership and they revealed it to the media. Well, since one cannot tell for sure who actually rules this country, considering the chaotic situation of society and the hook-up between the police, the secret services and extreme radical groups, it is obvious that the plan behind revealing my name as a witness for Croatia in a genocide trial against Serbia was to keep me under pressure, and expose me to mistreatment and intimidation…
 Are you afraid?
Although this is not the first time I’ve been subject to campaigns of intimidation meant to force me out of the country or the like, I must admit I do not feel exactly at ease; the more so since my consent to take the stand in the trial is treated as an act of treason. People seem to forget what kind of war it was; they forget the tanks heading for Vukovar, the flowers Belgraders were showering them with; they forget that Vukovar was subsequently razed to the ground. All this is being ignored, actually swept under the carpet, just to prove that Serbia was not in any war. Regretfully, some developments have been playing into the hands of this thesis.
You mean some verdicts given by ICTY?
Sure. The sad fact is that no one from Serbia has been accused for the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As you know, Slobodan Miloševic died before the end of his trial. Hence, anyone trying in any way to remind citizens of the developments in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s is proclaimed an ‘enemy of the people’, a ‘hater’ or a ‘traitor’. And all this notwithstanding 400,000 veterans who are treated as an almost missing group, in order to deny Serbia’s responsibility for the wars in the 1990s. Where did all those people take the field? On whose territory?
Finally, I must say there is a difference between campaigns against me staged at the time of Slobodan Miloševic or Vojislav Koštunica and today.
What difference?
Well, people who waged the war, people responsible for it, are in power today. Head of state Tomislav Nikolic himself was on the battlefield; Aleksandar Vucic fought as a volunteer in the siege of Sarajevo; the leader of his former party, Vojislav Šešelj, is standing trial in The Hague.   In my view, the protagonists of historic developments, the protagonists of Serbia’s dire straits of today, should explain how come they changed their beliefs and policy. Should they do that, people would support them more and understand them better. But as things stand now, they have reason enough to obstruct public argumentation and testimony by anyone reminding citizens of their past doings. This is why this regime is far more oppressive in its pressure on people. And Serbian society in ruins, Serbia’s non-existent institutions - all this makes it easier for the regime.
Have institutions ever been in a better state over here?
You are right, they have never been in a much better state than they are now. And yet it seems to me that the international community, since it placed Kosovo on its priority agenda, has been less focused on the situation in Serbia. And this regime, naturally, makes good use of it.
What do you mean?
I’m saying that the West has obviously reached some kind of agreement with the structure in power: the latter will give up any partition scenario for Kosovo, and in return the West will turn a blind eye to Serbia’s domestic policies for a while, including development of institutions. Luckily the agreement is provisional.
How provisional?
The political context will change once Serbia obtains a date for the beginning of accession negotiations with the EU. Then Europe will finally be controlling the functioning of Serbia’s institutions.
By the way, the Democratic Party is most responsible for this crying paradox of today’s Serbia - that people with such track records are taking the country towards EU! Everything would have been different had the Democratic Party had more mature leaders and taken stock of the wars of the 1990s - the stock that Serbia will have to take sooner or later. As it is, Serbia continued the war by other means after 5 October 2000. Serbia has been obstructing consolidation of the states emerging from ex-Yugoslavia – especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. All these countries have to cope with this problem, in other words with Serbia.
They still do?
Of course they do. True, there is a truce of a kind now, with Montenegro for instance. But this does not mean that Serbia is no longer trying to undermine these countries’ movement towards the EU or NATO. In this context, after compromising the leaders of these countries and destabilizing their domestic situations, Serbia attempts to exert all sorts of pressure on them. This is a comprehensive strategy on which – I regret to say – Serbia still wastes most of its energy.
The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia has published numerous books on this, and on developments in the territory of former Yugoslavia over the past two decades.   It has collected large documentation and produced documentaries on the issue. The Helsinki Committee has been widely circulating its findings – domestically, in the region and internationally. And this is yet another reason why this regime picks on me: it seemingly takes us to be an organization with considerable international influence.
Are you? How much in demand are your reports?
People do read them since they provide precise and accurate analyses based on factual information. And it goes without saying that the influence to which the regime refers to, and which it is evidently afraid of, is far smaller than the actual influence of the Helsinki Committee or myself. But our influence is deliberately mystified and interpreted as being greater than it is.
If you don’t mind, I will revert to the international community’s role in and influence upon developments in the Western Balkans. I think the problem is in the West’s frequent ‘sweet-talk’ policy for Serbia. There are two reasons for this.   First, Serbia is the biggest country in the Balkans; secondly, as such Serbia has to be calmed down in this way or some other and pushed into a dialogue with the EU. And Serbia has made the best of it, considering its decades-old and well functioning diplomatic and intelligence mechanisms. I regret to say that the international community’s attitude as such is detrimental to Serbia in the long run.
In what sense?
With all this wheeling and dealing and under-the-counter bargains and trades, Serbia has actually neglected itself, its real-life problems.
If we take a look at, say, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia – the institution I truly do appreciate – we shall realize that neither has this court developed mechanisms that would make Serbia, as well as other ex-Yugoslav republics, take into consideration its verdicts and evidence.   These have instead usually been ignored. At the same time, the Tribunal has been anathematized and called ‘anti-Serb’. Something similar has been the case in other countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia.
I think the failure to develop a serious strategy for the region has also been a big mistake on the West’s part.   Following this ‘example’, all the ex-Yugoslav republics have given no thought to a strategy for the region. The EU has been focused instead on human rights, institutions and corruption - a corruption that cannot be eradicated without solid economic foundations.
The Ivica Dacic cabinet has placed the struggle against corruption as its priority agenda. What has come out of it?
I would say it was more of a media campaign canvassing for Aleksandar Vucic as the only one who against all odds – risking even his own life – seriously copes with the pressing problems of this society. But a year and a half later, everything boiled down to a farce: a non-stop election campaign meant to raise Vucic and his party to the only position the first vice-premier yearns for - that of the new and unquestioned leader of the Serb nation. This is why the whole story sounds so phony and tragicomic…I would say citizens are becoming aware that Vucic’s anti-corruption campaign is a dead loss: nothing but a personality cult.
Why a dead loss? Some people were arrested, they are standing trial…
So what? What’s the outcome? Have we had an epilogue to any of these cases? We have not. Instead corruption still thrives, which testifies to the fact that this government is up to its ears in it like all previous ones. So instead of the promised epilogues we have new promises, pledges and arrests in the tabloids – on Fridays usually. In a word, what we have is a populism that channels people’s justified dissatisfaction towards targeted individuals or groups.   In this specific case, towards the Democratic Party, which unfortunately itself called into question certain moves by its presumptuous officials. Yet it would be tragic should the Democratic Party – even such as it is now – disappear, since you cannot have normal political life with a single party dominating the scene.

There is something I have to ask you: what do you, as a member of the political council of the Liberal Democratic Party, think of that party’s initial decision to accept an invitation to the provisional council of the City of Belgrade?
I am glad that things have changed in the meantime…
Things have changed because, as Cedomir Jovanovic put it, it was the Democratic Party that ‘poisoned the atmosphere and behaved irresponsibly’. Otherwise one thousand flowers would have bloomed, I guess…Everything considered, does this hint at a closer cooperation between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Serbian Progressive Party?
I do not know the answer to this question. You can see for yourself how fluid our political scene is. Alliances are made overnight, literally. Boris Tadic, say, tells one story and Dragan Ðilas quite a different one; Even the Democrats could end up in an alliance with the Progressists, who knows. Anyway, this not the way I scrutinize our political scene.
In what way do you scrutinize it?
I try to get to the bottom of it. And I regret to say that the situation is extremely bad: freedom of expression is under a reign of terror; not only recent history, but also the history of the entire 20th century, is being revised and historical facts distorted, while hardly anyone raises a voice against it. And for all this we have to thank our immature, selfish and pretty incapable political elites.
Speaking of the Liberal Democratic Party I have supported and still stand for its policy, although I am not a member. I believe it managed against all odds to put across some messages to this society. After all, the stands that Cedomir Jovanovic and the Liberal Democratic Party have advocated for years today constitute Serbia’s policy, at least formally. Of course, there is still no telling what will come out of it.
And when Croatia invited you to appear as a witness for it in the charge for genocide it is pressing against Serbia?
First of all, this has to do with charges that everyone expected the two countries would ultimately withdraw.
Is there still a chance for something like that?
I would say there is always a chance. Withdrawal of the charges would indicate that our politicians and societies have matured, which would be a step towards serious regional cooperation. Because, as things stand now, we are still glaring at one another.
By the way, Croatia had three preconditions for withdrawal of its charge against Serbia: a solution to the problem of missing persons, non-impunity for war crimes, and defining the border on the Danube. Serbia’s leadership turned these down. What I am saying is that Serbia constantly obstructs negotiations on these issues
But hasn’t Premier Ivica Dacic himself recently appealed to Croatia for settlement of the genocide charges?
Yes, he has. But Croatia is still waiting for an answer to its demands. Once they are answered positively, the charges will certainly be withdrawn. It would be nice, therefore, should President Nikolic, Premier Dacic' and his deputy, Aleksandar Vucic, finally tell the public what Croatia’s preconditions are all about. This is all the more important in that both Serbia and Croatia are aware how costly a trial would be. On the one hand, it could easily turn into yet another prolonged agony; on the other, it could be useful, since it would lift the veil from developments in the 1990s.
That is what Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic also said during his recent visit to Belgrade.
Many things have already been disclosed in ICTY trials. Let me remind you, for example, that Milan Babic, in his capacity as a witness for the prosecution, revealed key facts that speak about the character of the war [in Croatia], the manner in which it had been prepared and financed, and how one third of Croatia’s territory had been occupied. Besides, when he was taken into custody for fraud in 2002, Slobodan Miloševic said that all money flows could not have been made public, because with those funds Serbia had financed the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In what sense could this trial harm Croatia?
Probably by opening the question of Croatian war crimes against Serbs, committed in the course of the Homeland War.
You mean in August 1995?
Yes, I’m referring to that as well.   But that was not about ethnic cleansing.
Was it not?
No, it was not. And that is the most problematic part. The Serbian side maintains that what happened in the aftermath of Operation Storm – those six hundred old people – could be qualified as ethnic cleansing.   But there was an organized exodus, with Belgrade in the leading role.
On the other hand, should the trial take place at all, it would be an opportunity for the citizens of this country to learn that in the 1990s Serbia started aggressive wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.   That would once and for all define the character of the wars waged on the former Yugoslav territory. And this is the crucial fact that is being ignored over here.
When you know how the ICJ ruled in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Serbia, what is the purpose of these charges after all? Would you say that developments on the territory of Croatia could be labelled genocide on any grounds?
I would refrain from giving my opinion about this – it is something I would not wish to comment on. But speaking of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s charge, one must not forget that the court decided that – as Žarko Puhovski ironically put it – a ‘municipal genocide’ had been committed in Bosnia, at Srebrenica. On the other hand, Radovan Karadžic is standing trial not just for Srebrenica, but also for other places in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serb forces are alleged to have committed genocide.
The ICJ decided that there was not evidence enough to support the genocide charge. And the evidence was insufficient because, on the one hand, Serbia had blacked out some documents that could have been used as evidence and, on the other hand, because of certain EU member-states’ attitude towards genocide. Nevertheless, the ruling was that Serbia did nothing to prevent the Srebrenica genocide, which is a terrible accusation. Besides, ICTY verdicts on certain high officials of Republika Srpska testify to the way in which Serbia supported the Bosnian war: how it provided trucks, arms, money, logistics. Anyway genocide cannot be committed without support from a state and its apparatus.
But how come that Croatia invited you to testify in this trial?
I did not ask for it, that’s for sure…You know, each of the parties in legal proceedings tries to secure witnesses for itself, so they found me. They probably know that the Helsinki Committee has concerned itself with Croatia; that numerous Serb refugees from Croatia were turning to us at the time and we tried to help them; that the Helsinki Committee’s reports were based on their testimonies, on the available documentation, on research, and most importantly on its understanding of Yugoslavia.
What do you mean by its understanding of Yugoslavia?
The Helsinki Committee and I have been concerning ourselves with ex-Yugoslavia’s disintegration for a long time.   Deeply involved in the issue, we have been analysing it carefully. Before the war broke out, I was working for the Yugoslav Secretariat of Foreign Affairs and, by the very nature of my job, I was informed about developments in Yugoslavia. In this context, let me remind you that the Hague Conference in 1991 was Yugoslavia’s last chance to safeguard its integrity. Having already won over the JNA and defined its goals, Serbia refused to take this chance. It justified this by claiming, ‘Serbs are not a minority community’, although all minorities - including the Albanians - had already obtained ‘special status’. Serbia’s leadership of the time obviously thought it could get all it planned to. But their assessment was wrong – to this very day we are witnessing how much it cost Serbia, and especially the Serbs in Croatia who were hostages to Belgrade’s policy.
And speaking of SFRY’s problem as an complex community, of the war and the crimes committed in it, I must say that what is crucial in my view is a person’s attitude towards the processes of which that person was a contemporary.
What attitude have you taken?
I try to find the truth, no matter what it costs. Contrary to all hostile interpretations and constructions, I have never taken sides, been for one side or against another.   That has never been the case.
What was the case then?
I have concerned myself with human rights, as someone to whom a person’s belonging to any particular ethnic group – Serb, Croat or Bosniak – means little. That is simply not the way I am, feel or think. And I live and work accordingly. This is why I carefully observe processes, take notes, analyse. At present I am a member of the international mission monitoring human-rights violations in North Korea. Can you tell me which side I have been on there? Which side do I favour? Which side do I frown upon?
You can see for yourself how senseless all such allegations are.
This interview by Tamara Nikcevic for the Belgrade
weekly Vreme, 21 November 2013, is reproduced from the website
of the Helsinki Committee (www.
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