Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Arrest and Release of the Wrong Twins

Tribunal Update 86: Last Week in The Hague (20-24 July, 1998)
By IWPR ICTY

Instead of Predrag and Nenad Banovic, who have been accused of crimes in the Keraterm camp, SFOR arrested and transferred Miroslav and Milan Vuckovic, who are neither accused nor suspected of war crimes. The Hague Tribunal's investigators, however, quickly determined that this was a case of mistaken identity and on the same day, the brothers were released and transported back to Bosnia on a special SFOR flight.

When one admits and rectifies one's mistakes, it is usually followed by a promise that such mistakes won't be repeated. In this case, however, the opposite happened. In a statement issued on July 24, Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour did not rule out the possibility that the same thing might happen again. On the contrary, Arbour warned, "it is possible that other incidents of mistaken identity will occur... particularly while Republika Srpska (RS) continues to supply indicted accused with false identification papers".

Arbour used this opportunity to disclose that "several of those arrested by SFOR this year, have had false official identity papers, including photographs, issued by various RS authorities in their possession at the time of their arrest". So, false documents have been issued by legal authorities. This, according to Arbour, "demonstrates that not only is RS avoiding its legal obligations, including those under the Dayton Peace Agreement, but has also been engaged in deliberately frustrating the Tribunal's work by issuing false identification papers to those persons... in an attempt to shield them from the Tribunal's jurisdiction".

If true, this accusation brings into question the praise that the new leadership of RS has received for its cooperation with the international community. Taking into account the sensitivity of the political situation in RS, the international community tacitly released the new authorities from the "primary obligation" stemming from the Dayton Peace Agreement, namely to arrest and surrender those indicted.

The international community was satisfied with President Biljana Plavsic and Prime Minister Milorad Dodik's promises that they would not interfere with attempts by other bodies which may try to arrest such persons. Issuing false documents to the accused would go against their promises. This could also explain why the verification of the identity of the arrested was undertaken in The Hague rather than in Prijedor. Two NATO statements issued on the night of 22/23 July, however, confirm that doubts over the identity of the arrested arose shortly after the arrest.

The first statement, issued just before midnight on 22 July, stated that Predrag and Nenad Banovic had been arrested. The second one, issued around 5 a.m. on 23 July, said that SFOR had "detained two individuals who are believed to be indicted for war crimes... (and who are) being processed for transfer to The Hague, where the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will be responsible for their positive identification".

It appears that SFOR concluded that in the process of identifying the arrested it could not rely on the authorities which had issued "their" indicted with false personal documents. The irony is that it was not the RS authorities who helped the Tribunal to determine the true identity of the arrested twins. It was in fact the Bosniak-Croat Federation authorities that promptly responded to The Hague investigators' requests concerning the identity of the arrested.

This is, however, not the first case of mistaken identity that the Tribunal has faced. Goran Lajic, who is also accused of crimes in the Keraterm camp, was arrested in Germany in March 1996 on the basis of an Interpol warrant. Nevertheless, after he was handed over to the Tribunal in May 1996, it was established that the arrested Goran Lajic was not the one indicted by the Tribunal.

This was despite the fact that he had the same Christian and family names, was born in the same town, went to the very same school and even served in the same military police unit as the actual accused. He was released a month later. At a public hearing at which Trial Chamber I ordered his release, both Lajic and his lawyer, Belgrade solicitor Toma Fila, thanked the Tribunal for their efficiency in identifying and correcting the mistake.

Even the best police forces mistake identities from time to time, and they, unlike SFOR whose primary job in Bosnia is not a policing one, have an abundance of data about the people they eventually track down. Having burned their fingers in the case of the wrong twins, SFOR and the Tribunal may ask the authorities in the RS and in other entities and states where those accused of war crimes reside, to hand over police records such as photographs and fingerprints.

Those authorities would be obliged to comply, not only because the provisions of the Dayton Agreement require them to do so, but also because of their responsibility towards their own constituencies. By protecting "their" own accused of war crimes, they expose thousands of citizens to the risk of being mistaken for the accused only because they have the same or similar names, look like or share some other personal data or feature with the accused.