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

Bosnia: SFOR Frees Suspected Extremist

The NATO-led peacekeepers' decision to release a Muslim accused of links to al-Qaeda may not be enough to ease fears of human rights abuses.
By Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic

NATO-led peacekeeping troops have released a suspected Islamic extremist they had been holding for three months without charge.

Sabahudin Fiuljanin was handed over to the local authorities on January 30 after an outcry over the circumstances of his detention.

Amnesty International, the Bosnian government and the country's top human rights court had claimed that NATO's Stabilisation Force, SFOR, had flouted the 1995 Dayton peace agreement - which states that troops should maintain stability but not overrule local law - and that the its anti-terror campaign had led to a number of civil liberties abuses.

Bosnian law allows a suspect to be held without charge for 30 days - but Fiuljanin had been detained for three times that period. He was allowed to see a lawyer only twice, and was denied family visits throughout his incarceration.

Fiuljanin, a resident of Maoca, was arrested on suspicion of spying and accused of links to al-Qaeda in November, when he was allegedly discovered in front of an SFOR base in Tuzla with anti-tank weapons in his car.

Amnesty International spoke out strongly against SFOR's decision to hold him without charge after the 30-day limit, stating, "The obligation to respect human rights applies to all members of international and inter-governmental organisations exercising law enforcement functions - including NATO."

Bosnia's Human Rights Chamber demanded on January 11 that SFOR hand over Fijuljanin to the Bosnian authorities, claiming that local and international law had been violated. The country's tripartite presidency made a similar call.

SFOR had refused to comply with these requests, but freed their prisoner on the grounds that the local authorities could now take over the investigation.

Following Fiuljanin's release, his lawyer Osman Mulahalilovic told the media that his client had handed in all his weapons in October following an amnesty.

While Fiuljanin was expected to give a statement to the local police, it is uncertain if further charges will be pressed against him. SFOR spokesman Major Shawn Mill told journalists at a press conference on January 30 that there was an "on going investigation" into the Fiuljanin case, and that they still considered the suspect to be an "extremist".

His arrest had sparked a series of SFOR patrols and house searches in Bosnia, as part of a crackdown on suspected extremists. This pressure allegedly forced around ten Maoca families to flee their homes earlier this month.

"Those families had to leave in the midst of such a harsh winter," complained Sulejman Osojkic, a member of the dwindling Muslim community.

"They [SFOR] claim that they are for democracy and human rights, and call us extremists. Why - am I an enemy of SFOR?"

While the Maoca community includes a number of radical Muslims who fought during the war in Bosnia, they deny all links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Locally, they are known as Vehabije - a name given to those who follow puritanical interpretations of Islam.

Police and other local officials in the Tuzla canton - which has jurisdiction in the area - have repeatedly said that the community did not pose a threat.

"So far we have not had any incidents or complaints about members of this group from their neighbours, nor people of different nationalities who live with them. There are no indications that they represent a special danger to the safety of the area or the community they belong to," Tuzla police commissioner Ivica Divkovic told IWPR.

He said the Maoca community was made up of Bosnian citizens and Muslims from neighbouring Yugoslavia. Locals say there are around 20 such families still living in the area.

SFOR spokesman Major John Dowling explained that the increased SFOR activity was part of Operation Harvest, which was designed to collect illegally stashed weapons from the war, and had nothing to do with targeting Muslim radicals.

He added that the NATO-led force had received no complaints from any of the locals, and insisted that its activities had been misinterpreted. "SFOR treats all people equally - we have no preference for any ethnicity, religion or nationality," he said.

But Admir Mujkanovic, president of the municipality that includes Maoca, told IWPR he had warned SFOR a few months ago that residents were being upset by the frequent patrols and late night helicopter flights. "They told me this would not happen again, but that has remained just a promise," he said.

Nermina Durmic Kahrovic is a regular IWPR contributor

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