Jezik / Language:
22 April 2009

Serbian Probe into JNA Deaths Alarms Bosnians

Erna Mackic BIRN BiH Sarajevo
Serbia’s move to investigate the May 1992 killings of JNA soldiers in Sarajevo raises as many questions as it answers.
Investigation opened by the Serbian Prosecution into war crimes committed in Dobrovoljacka street in Sarajevo, in May 1992 where at least dozen Yugoslav National Army, JNA, soldiers were killed has stirred controversy both in Bosnia and Serbia.

While Bosnia`s authorities claim Serbia has no legal ground for the move, some legal experts and analysts in both countries see the investigation as a political act.

The action has prompted a sharp response in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where two members of the State Presidency, Haris Silajdzic and Zeljko Komsic, claimed Serbia’s action breached the Rome Agreement, signed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia in 1996.

This obliged signatory states to seek the opinion of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, before indicting nationals of another country.

The War Crimes section of the Serbian Prosecutor’s office opened the investigation into 19 people late last year. In early March 2009 it determined that one of them had since died. An investigative judge then ordered the others into custody and issued warrants against them. The Serbian Prosecution “does not want to disclose” their identity. 

Amir Ahmic, Bosniak liaison officer with the Hague Tribunal, said that the action appeared to be “unilateral”, adding that ICTY “should now give a legal explanation of the current situation”. 

To add the confusion, the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is conducting its own investigation into the events in Dobrovoljacka street in 1992.

However, Boris Grubesic, spokesperson for Bosnia’s State Prosecution, said their office did “not want to present any further details concerning the case”, including the number of suspects.

Zaim Backovic, whose name has been mentioned as a suspect, told BIRN - Justice Report that he had “not even been present in Dobrovoljacka street” at the time, adding: “There was no decision, ordering the attack to be conducted”. 

“There was no radio communication at the time. The Interior Ministry, the Safety Center in Sarajevo and the Regional Staffs – there was a total disorder all over the place,” Backovic said.

Backovic said the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Regional Staffs were in charge of safely escorting the convoy through the city to the barracks at Lukavica. 

He wondered also why prosecutors in Belgrade and local journalists, had not undertaken an investigation “to find out how many Sarajevo citizens were killed in those days”.

A day of bloodshed and confusion:

The controversy over what happened on May 3, 1992, when a convoy of JNA soldiers was pulling back through Dobrovoljacka street, in central Sarajevo, to the barracks in Lukavica, remains unresolved.

In the middle of the convoy was Alija Izetbegovic, then President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was seated in the first armored transporter, having been seized by the JNA at Sarajevo airport the previous day.

As per a previously reached agreement, the president was to be released once the convoy had passed through the city safely to the barracks. But in the afternoon hours the convoy was disjoined and a number of soldiers were killed.

Seventeen years on, it is not known exactly how many died.

A criminal report filed by the Public Safety Centre from Eastern Sarajevo claimed up to 42 soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. 

Jovan Divjak, then deputy commander of the Territorial Defence, who was present in the street, says he knew about only “between seven and nine victims”, however.

The investigation conducted by the Serbian Prosecution, meanwhile, mentions 18, while another criminal report, filed by the Republika Srpska authorities, mention 15.
Various media reports have named as possible suspects: two former members of the Bosnian wartime presidency Ejub Ganic and Stjepan Kljujic, the former Territorial Defence commander Divjak, Backovic.

The report filed with the Serbian War Crimes Prosecution accused the aforementioned Ganic and Kljujic of having “organised and ordered [two] Bosnian Army officers, the late Mustafa Hajrulahovic and Jusuf Pusina, then and now an Interior Ministry member, to attack the army convoy.” 

It says Ganic and Kljujic ordered the attack even though an agreement had been made to allow the Second Military Regional Staffs of the JNA to leave Sarajevo peacefully.

The report alleges that, in this way, the two men “directly participated in killing and wounding several tens of JNA members”. 

However, Boris Siber, a former senior JNA officer who became deputy commander of the Territorial Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the beginning of the war, says that “nobody gave an order to undertake an attack in Dobrovoljacka Street”.

He would have “been informed about the order, had it been issued by a state or military institution”, he said. 

Kljujic has declined to comment at length. In a brief telephone conversation, he told only BIRN - Justice Report that he had not been contacted by the investigative bodies of any state, adding that, if it happened, he would “undertake certain actions”. 

All those mentioned as potential suspects in Serbia have said they would not respond to a summons from Belgrade but only to one from Sarajevo. 

“I am waiting for an indictment to be formulated,” Divjak told local media. “Then we shall know who is charged with what.”

He added: “When I receive an indictment, I can start collecting material needed for my defence. I want to see what the charges are, because I did not command or organise anything. Somebody will have to prove those charges.”

Questions over Serbia’s Motives:

Analysts give various reasons as to why the Serbian Prosecution has chosen to open the Dobrovoljacka Street investigation.

Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, president of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights of Serbia, said: “The investigation looks like some political demonstration by the Serbian Prosecution.”

“The only argument for opening the investigation is the fact that the victims were members of the JNA,” Kovacevic-Vuco said.

“But it would have been logical had the investigation been opened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, considering the crime was committed on its territory and the suspects are members of the Bosnian authorities or its military structures,” she added.

Kovacevic-Vuco believes the process was initiated for political reasons and “seems to be more complicated, in legal terms, than one would initially think”. 

Some Serbian lawyers with whom Justice Report spoke off the record agree it is the absolute right of every country to process any crime.

But they also say that the actions undertaken by the Serbian Prosecution appear aimed at “distracting the Serbian public” and making it look that “members of other nations are being tried as well [as Serbs]”. 

The Serbian Prosecution has already filed and indictment and opened a process against Ilija Jurisic, charged with committing crimes against a JNA convoy in Tuzla in May 1992.

Jurisic was arrested at the airport when he tried to visit his family on May 11, 2007. 

His arrest, as well as an indication that other people may be arrested for the crime committed in Dobrovoljacka Street, has caused concern among Bosnian citizens as well as a fear of traveling to Serbia. 

“I visited Belgrade several times after the end of the war but I do not think that I will go there again for the time being,” one Sarajevo resident said.

“I was in Sarajevo during the course of the war as member of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I did not do anything bad, but I’m not sure what is going on. I do not want to take the risk.”

A breach of the Rome agreement?

The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina has opened its own investigation into Dobrovoljacka Street, according to Chief Prosecutor Milorad Barasin, who said the investigation started in 2003 but is still ongoing. 

Responding to media reports that the Serbian Prosecution had expanded the investigation, Boris Grubesic, spokesperson of the Bosnian State Prosecution, said that their office had “not been informed about the mentioned investigation”. 

However, Bruno Vekaric, spokesperson of the War Crimes Prosecution of Serbia, disagreed, saying that “cooperation had been established” with the Bosnian Prosecution “on several occasions during 2006 when collected data were exchanged”. 

“This direct cooperation included helping Prosecutor Philip Alcock examine a large number of witnesses in the premises of the War Crimes Prosecution in Belgrade. He did that in October 2006,” Vekaric told BIRN - Justice Report.

Meanwhile, the opening of the investigation in Serbia prompted Silajdzic and Komsic to call a meeting with members of the wartime Presidency of Bosnia, namely Tatjana Ljujic-Mijatovic, Ivo Komsic, Miro Lazovic and Ejub Ganic, on March 19, where they concluded that Serbia had breached the 1996 Rome Agreement. 

Serbia had failed to seek the ICTY’s opinion before taking action and had “therefore breached international legal provisions,” the Bosnian Presidency members said.

However, Vekaric says Serbia had not violated the Rome Agreement, as Serbia “considered itself competent in this case on the basis of humanitarian war law (which stipulates that any country is obliged to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, irrespective of the location at which the crimes were committed)”.

He in turn accused the authorities and media in Bosnia and Herzegovina of “politicizing” the Dobrovoljacka case.

“We are professionals. We are conducting the investigation regardless of political reasons and in line with the evidence we have collected,” Vekaric told BIRN - Justice Report.

Zaim Backovic, meanwhile says he too will not travel to Serbia, though admittedly he has never been there anyway.

He said that should he decide to travel to any other country, he would ask the prosecution authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina for their opinion before going. 

Once again, he denies having been present at the scene when the killings took place. “No complications were reported on that day,” he says recalling May 3, 1992. “I could therefore not have issued any [such] orders.”

Erna Mackic is BIRN - Justice Report journalist. [email protected] Justice Report is weekly online BIRN publication.

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