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Bosnia: SFOR Rights Violation Furore

NATO force defends decision to detain without charge local man suspected of extremist links.
By Aldin Arnautovic

Bosnia's NATO-led stabilisation force, SFOR, is coming under growing criticism over alleged human rights violations.


Leading international civil liberties groups last month joined locals in condemning the force after it was revealed that a Bosniak man accused of links to the al-Qaeda network had been detained for more than a month without being charged.


Sabahudin Fijuljanin was arrested in his home village of Maoca, northern Bosnia, on October 26 for allegedly spying on SFOR facilities. A subsequent search and investigation turned up a rocket launcher, several passports and other unspecified material.


According to SFOR, this proves that Fijuljanin poses a threat to NATO and the general security situation in the country.


But the Bosnian public - which generally supports anti-terrorist activity - has been outraged by the fact that Fijuljanin is still in custody without any explanations given, or access to his family.


When it emerged that he had not been granted access to a lawyer during this time, the local press and international human rights organisations openly criticised the peacekeepers for violating the prisoner's rights.


Last week, Fijuljanin was allowed to speak to his lawyer Osman Mulahalilovic for an hour - the latter protesting that he has yet to see any evidence to support SFOR's claim that his client is connected to al-Qaeda.


And more than a month after the arrest, Fijuljanin's father Sakib told IWPR that he has still not been allowed to visit his son.


Amnesty International wrote to SFOR on November 22 to warn that if they continue to detain Fijuljanin under such conditions, they will be in violation of several internationally recognised rights.


"These include the right to challenge the lawfulness of this detention, the right to legal counsel and the right to have contact with relatives," the group said.


Srdjan Dizdarevic of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee also criticised SFOR for going too far. "The relevant courts should look at the case to see whether there are any grounds for his detention.


"Since the September 11 attacks on America, SFOR has stepped outside its boundaries and has turned into a force which is not under any control - judicial or democratic."


SFOR has dismissed the criticism by claiming that its powerful mandate - the General Framework Agreement for Peace - "gives us the authority to detain him (Fijuljanin) as long we deem necessary to continue our investigation," according to spokesman Lieutenant Commander Yves Vanier.


There was a similar case last winter, when peacekeepers arrested two Bosniak men during an investigation into the activities of a Saudi Arabian humanitarian organisation. They were detained for suspected militant activities, but were released several days later without explanation.


Criticism of SFOR has been heightened by the force's decision to ground all Federation army helicopters after SFOR said one had flown too close to its base at the Marshall Tito barracks in Sarajevo three weeks ago. It later emerged the aircraft was hired by a film crew that needed some aerial shots of the capital, and had obtained all the necessary permits.


Local media then complained that SFOR helicopters have been disturbing residents of Sarajevo, Tuzla and other Bosnian towns for years by skimming over rooftops on a daily basis.


Mark Wheeler of the International Crisis Group in Bosnia-Hercegovina believes that given the scope of the peacekeepers' power there is little point in looking for apologies or explanations. "SFOR enjoys an unlimited mandate and it is too late to change it," he said.


The antagonism comes as the force prepares to scale down its operation in Bosnia. NATO announced earlier this year that SFOR would be cutting its 18,000-strong force by one third soon after the October 5 elections.


SFOR spokesman Vanier explained the improvement in the overall political and security situation in the region was the main reason for the move, pointing out that democratic changes in neighbouring countries had removed "external threats to Bosnian peace".


However, the decision has provoked further concerns over the peacekeepers' failure to arrest top war crimes suspects such as Radovan Karadzic.


Vanier told IWPR that SFOR's pursuit of Hague indictees would not be hit by the reduction in manpower - although he stressed that the ultimate responsibility for catching them lies with the local authorities.


Aldin Arnautovic is editor-in-chief of the Boram Radio Network in Bosnia


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