A former interior minister in Bosnia this week described himself as an “idiot” for failing to rid the country of Radovan Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb leaders before war broke out in 1992.
Vitomir Zepinic, who is a Bosnian Serb, served as deputy interior minister of Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, in 1991 and 1992.
He was in court this week as a defence witness in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Karadzic, who is charged with eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995 and the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign against the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
Although Zepinic appeared for the defence, his testimony seemed to take Karadzic – who represents himself in court – by surprise.
Zepinic, now an Australian citizen, has testified in several other trials at the Hague tribunal. In previous testimony, he has accused the Bosnian Serb leadership of using conflict and violence to separate the Serbs off from other ethnic groups in Bosnia.
Zepinic became deputy interior minister in early 1991, after his name was put forward for the job by Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party, SDS.
He told the court this week that he was never a member of the SDS and "did not feel represented by it". Instead, he said, he was a "multi-nationalist by conviction and a Yugoslav by tradition".
Karadzic read the court a summary of a written statement which his witness gave to the defence last summer. In the statement, Zepinic accused the Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks, led by BiH president Alija Izetbegovic, of instigating the war because they were “opposed to coexistence" with other ethnic groups.
"There was a climate of conspiracy against Yugoslavia", the statement read. "It seemed that everyone opposed coexistence as we had known it before, including the Bosnian Serb leadership led by Karadzic, which opposed the idea of sharing political and cultural institutions with other ethnic groups in the country.”
In the same statement, Zepinic said Karadzic was not aware of the "daily happenings on the ground and crimes carried out by paramilitary groups at the outset of the war, because he was concerned with the political realisation of his goals".
Nor, he stated, did Karadzic have anything to do with killings of Bosniaks in Bijeljina in early April 1992. These murders, he said, were committed by a paramilitary group from Serbia led by Zeljko Raznjatovic, who went by the name Arkan.
Arkan was a career criminal turned paramilitary leader who operated throughout the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. He was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000 before he could be tried for war crimes.
During the cross-examination, prosecutor Alan Tieger asked Zepinic whether he was aware of Karadzic's contacts with Serbian paramilitaries, Arkan in particular.
"I actually remember that there was a meeting in a Belgrade hotel in March of 1992, at which [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic and Arkan were present, together with Karadzic," the witness said.
He added that at the time this meeting took place, Bosnian Serbs were setting up barricades in and around Sarajevo.
Karadzic and Arkan seemed to understand each other well and had “similar views on what was going on", Zepinic said. "I was told they even had a chat and a little game of cards at the end of that meeting."
Tieger reminded the witness of statements he had given in other Hague trials in which he described Karadzic as "aggressively opposing” his own concept of a “multiethnic society”.
According to the prosecutor, Karadzic referred to Zepinic as an "idiot" on one occasion, and this led to him being placed on a “blacklist of the Bosnian Serb leadership".
At this, the witness looked at Karadzic and told the prosecutor that he was indeed an “idiot”.
“But an idiot only because I failed to get rid of this bunch [Bosnian Serb leadership], rid my life and rid the entire country of them. A decision I dearly regret," he added.
The defendant seemed astonished as Zepinic went on to describe his career as deputy interior minister, accusing Karadzic and his close associates of forcing him to resign from his position “some time in spring 1992".
After that, the witness said, he was "arrested three times and spent the entire year being locked away on their [Bosnian Serb leadership’s] orders".
"I ran away to Australia in 1993 via Serbia, using a family visit I was granted as an excuse,” Zepinic told the court.
He said that during his imprisonment, Karadzic "tormented" him and even visited him in person to try to "bring him to reason".
"Karadzic kept asking me where my family was," he told the prosecutor, "but I wouldn't tell him. He said he wanted to ensure they were being taken care of, but I knew it was a different kind of care he had in mind. My parents experienced that care on their own skin.”
Zepinic said his parents were mistreated so often that his mother died of a heart attack as a result.
The witness said Karadzic had described himself as a "good Christian" who knew the value of family and had often talked about his own mother and father.
"So, Dr Karadzic, you claim to be an Orthodox Christian,” Zepinic said. “But I still cannot understand why you had to cause the death of my mother."
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.