Karadzic Witness Pressed on Serb "Tigers"
A former Bosnian Serb official this week denied that municipal authorities invited paramilitary groups into the northeast Bosnian city of Bijeljina to assist with the capture of the town in April 1992.
Cvijetin Simic, testifying as a defence witness on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, was chairman of the Bijeljina municipal assembly when war broke out.
Karadzic, who represents himself in court, questioned the witness very briefly by the accused and admitted his statement into evidence.
Then the prosecution asked Simic a series of forceful questions about what he knew of Arkan’s Tigers, a notorious paramilitary group led by Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan. The unit is accused of murdering and terrorising non-Serb civilians in Bijeljina as Bosnian Serb forces took over the town on April 1-2, 1992.
Karadzic – along with members of his presidency and other local officials – are alleged to have invited the Tigers (and other paramilitary units) into Bosnia despite the group’s reputation for committing brutal crimes against civilians during the war in neighbouring Croatia.
The defendant is charged with responsibility for the killing of at least 48 civilians in Bijeljina during the capture of the town.
Prosecutors further allege that Karadzic is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
Prosecuting lawyer Alan Tieger began his cross-examination by asking the witness if it was fair to say that, before the capture of Bijeljina, Arkan was already a “well-known” and “famous” figure who was highly thought of by Serbs but feared by Croats.
“I think that you’ve exaggerated it a bit,” Simic replied. “As far as Bijeljina is concerned, he was well-known, but I don’t know if he was liked or popular before these events, if that’s what you mean.”
Tieger pressed the issue, and reminded the witness that as head of the municipal assembly, he met representatives of all ethnic groups in the town, and had presumably been monitoring the war taking place just over the border in Croatia.
“Yet you have no idea how members of your community felt about this well-known but controversial figure. Is that your testimony?” he asked.
“I’m telling you that I think the citizens of Bijeljina did not think about Arkan until the first of April. I don’t see any reason why they should have been afraid,” Simic maintained.
Tieger then presented an article from the Los Angeles Times dated December 16, 1991, which referred to Arkan’s “renown as a guerilla leader who leads Arkan’s Tigers”. Another report, this time from the Associated Press in January 1992, “refers to Arkan’s fame and the fact that he’s adored by the Serbian press”, the lawyer said.
Given this “world-wide renown,” Tieger questioned whether the witness could really have been “oblivious” to Arkan prior to April 1, 1992.
“I didn’t say we didn’t know; I said that citizens didn’t think about Arkan. I believe the citizens of Bijeljina don’t read – what was the name? The Los Angeles Times? I think the citizens of Bijeljina have absolutely no contact with that,” Simic said.
“You know what, Mr Simic, I don’t know if that’s supposed to be serious, but you’re not claiming to this court that people in Bijeljina would only have become aware of Arkan – and thought about Arkan – if they had happened to have a copy of the Los Angeles Times?” Tieger retorted, his voice rising.
“Well that’s the evidence you’re putting before me,” the witness replied.
Simic added that in his view, Arkan’s “media popularity started after these events [in April 1992] in Bijeljina. I think that’s how it was, but the prosecution has some other information; I don’t know.”
Tieger pressed on, saying, “The fact is, Mr Simic, Arkan was there because the Bijeljina municipal authorities invited him in, right?”
“No, you keep trying – Arkan was there but how do you get this information that he was invited by municipal authorities?” the witness countered.
Tieger then played a video of the paramilitary leader talking into a microphone to what appeared to be a television reporter. Arkan said that his men “came here after being invited by the Territorial Defence and the Serb people of Bijeljina. Of course we came to our people’s rescue.”
The prosecutor put it to Simic that Arkan was “saying he was invited and that’s why he showed up”.
“In fact Mr Simic, you refer in one of your documents [to the fact] that you did invite armed and uniformed groups, but there were other groups that were uninvited that you thought should leave,” Tieger said.
“Please. I don’t know what kind of practice this is, to keep putting Arkan here – he says he was invited by the Serb people and the Territorial Defence, and is not mentioning the municipal assembly and the authority of the town of Bijeljina. You keep adding things that were not said. And in which document did I invite paramilitaries to Bijeljina?” Simic replied testily.
Tieger asked once more whether “armed and uniformed groups came to Bijeljina by way of invitation from legal organs of the municipality”.
“No armed groups came at the invitation of the municipal authorities of Bijeljina,” the witness insisted.
Tieger then asked whether the witness was aware of allegations made against Arkan after the takeover of Bijeljina, or that some “extremely famous” photos had been taken of his forces at the time.
“Who made which allegations?” Simic asked.
Tieger showed the witness a series of photographs, including one that is among the most well-known of the entire war.
The image, taken by American photojournalist Ron Haviv, depicts three people in civilian clothing laying face down on the pavement, slumped against each other. A puddle of blood oozes out from under them. Men in camouflage uniform stand by the bodies, one with his foot raised, ready to kick one of the victims in the head.
Simic said he had seen the photograph before, and Tieger asked whether he was aware that this image – and others – had been “published and distributed worldwide at the time and since then”.
“I didn’t know then that they were published throughout world and I don’t know it now. I don’t even know if they are from Bijeljina. Is there any identification of these people? What is to confirm their location?” the witness asked.
Tieger said that Haviv, the photographer, had explained how the photo was taken both on his own website and to various other outlets. According to these accounts, Arkan had been pleased with an earlier photo that Haviv had taken and allowed him to accompany the unit to Bijeljina. That earlier picture showed Arkan posing with his balaclava-clad men on a tank in Croatia, holding a tiger cub by the scruff of its neck.
According to Haviv’s account, he saw a middle aged couple being brought screaming out of a house in Bijeljina. Arkan’s men told him not to take any photographs. Then Haviv says shots rang out and the man fell to the ground. The woman bent down and held his hand, trying to stop the blood – a moment which Haviv managed to capture on film – but then she was shot as well. Another woman, who Haviv described as the second victim’s sister, was also brought out and shot.
Haviv has said he took the photo of the victims being kicked during a brief moment when the soldiers were not looking.
Arkan was indicted by the tribunal but was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in 2000 before he could be arrested.
“Is it your testimony that as president of the municipality at the time, and as a continuing resident, you had no awareness that these photos were of Bijeljina involving Arkan’s forces?” Tieger asked the witness.
“I didn’t know about these photographs at the time. I said I’d seen them in a book published in Bosnia. I can’t recognise these people because I don’t know Arkan’s men and I don’t know the victims, so how could I comment on either?”
When Karadzic had a chance to ask additional questions, he seemed to challenge the authenticity of the photos.
“Do you remember what the weather was like in early April? Is this woman sufficiently dressed for weather like that?” Karadzic asked, in reference to the image depicting the woman holding the man’s hand after he had been shot. She wore a long skirt, a long-sleeved shirt and a beige colored sweater vest.
“I remember it was chilly. I wore an overcoat,” Simic replied.
As for the photo of the soldier kicking the people, “do we know if those lying on the ground are dead or alive?” Karadzic asked
“I don’t know, I don’t know who they are,” Simic said.
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.