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

Bosnia: Fury at Croat Politicians' Arrest

Colleagues of detained men claim arrests are an attempt to undermine the Croat minority.
By Nerma Jelacic

Bosnian Croat politicians have angrily condemned the arrest of three of their colleagues as an attack on the rights of ethnic Croats in the Federation.


Interior ministry police forces with the help of SFOR troops detained Ante Jelavic, Miroslav Rupcic and Miroslav Prce on January 23. Two days later, they were jailed for up to 30 days in Kula prison in Republika Srpska, where they will remain pending the prosecutor's decision.


The three are charged with embezzling funds from Hercegovacka Banka, a bank once closely linked to hard-line Croatian nationalists, and with “acting against the 1995 Dayton peace agreement” that ended hostilities in Bosnia.


In a statement to the press, all three categorically denied any involvement in the embezzlement of money through the bank. Officials of the Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, claimed the arrests were a deliberate attempt to provoke local Croats “to act irrationally”.


Jelavic was a former president of the HDZ and a onetime president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Prce, an ex-Bosnian Croat army general and Rupcic used to be the director of Hercegovina Osiguranje, an insurance company.


All three were founders of Hercegovacka Banka, which investigators of the Office of the High Representative, OHR, claim channelled money to Croat nationalists campaigning for a separate for their community within the Federation.


Although there was no sign of the arrests provoking public turmoil, HDZ officials have continued to raise a barrage of complaints, claiming the detention procedure was full of irregularities.


They said local police in the Herzegovina-Neretva canton, where the arrested lived, were not even informed of the action as they should have been by law.


Dragan Covic, Croat member of the Federation presidency, Niko Lozancic, president of the Federation and Barisa Colak, the HDZ president, said the arrests showed Croats “should have no confidence in the independence of judiciary and the professionalism of the police".


They were “a clear warning to the Croat population of Mostar, Herzegovina and the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina” that Bosnia’s three constituent peoples were not treated equally.


The HDZ in Mostar told IWPR, “Some factions want to turn Bosnia into a country of hatred and fear. We want to use this opportunity to tell the Croat people that we are aware of these scenarios and are not scared by their cowardly methods.”


The Croat Cultural Society, Napredak, in Mostar, denounced the arrests as “brutal” and claimed that the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, was “directly involved”.


But if the politicians’ hoped their orchestrated chorus of indignation would rouse the public into street protests, there has been no sign of this happening.


Croats questioned on the streets of Mostar voiced indifference over the police action. “A thief is a thief, whatever his nationality,” one woman said, commenting on the charges.


“When they draw a parallel between criminal suspects and the whole nation, they only hurt the Croats in [Bosnia].”


Another Croat in Mostar told IWPR, “Our own representatives seem to be scared of Jelavic and the others. That is why the local police did not arrest them but left it to the Federal police and SFOR.”


The mute reaction suggested many Croats drew a sharp distinction between arrests connected with corruption charges and arrests linked to war crimes during the 1992-5 conflict, which are far more controversial and inflammatory.


Hard-line Bosnian Croat politicians have long tried to make capital of their community’s frustrations with the 1995 Dayton agreement, which divided Bosnia into a Serb-run entity, Republika Srpska, and the Federation.


Feeling short-changed of a third, Croat-dominated unit, Croat nationalists caused unrest in Mostar in 2001 in an attempt to bring this about by force.


Accused of being a ring-leader of the revolt, the then High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch removed Jelavic from his post on the presidency and as HDZ party leader and banned him from active politics.


A month later, SFOR troops took control of Hercegovacka Banka to cut off the Croatian nationalists' financial support and put an international supervisor in charge.


A subsequent investigation suggested that a Croatian-government donation worth 175 million US dollars for the demobilisation of Bosnian Croat soldiers and assistance to disabled war veterans had been misused and that most of the money had been passed through the bank to the HDZ.


In 2003, Bosnian anti-corruption investigators launched an investigation into Jelavic, Prce and Rupcic, to probe their involvement in Hercegovacka Banka. On the basis of that inquiry, the prosecutor’s office decided to bring in Jelavic, Prce and Rupcic, culminating in the recent arrests.


The OHR denied any connection between the arrests and the publication of a long-delayed decision over the status of Mostar, which has been effectively divided since the 1992-5 war into a Croat-ruled western half and a Bosniak-run eastern half.


On January 28, the OHR finally ordered the merger of the several separate municipalities into one unified city government, promising that no single ethic community would be disadvantaged by the change.


Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Sarajevo, Maria Vlaho is an IWPR intern in London.