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

Bosnian Serb Leadership Never Had Criminal Intentions

Witness in Karadzic trial claims that wartime government took steps to prevent crimes against non-Serbs.
By Rachel Irwin

Continuing his testimony for a third consecutive week, a former minister in Radovan Karadzic’s government said that the wartime Bosnian Serb leadership “never had criminal intentions”.

Court witness Momcilo Mandic – who served as deputy interior minister, and then minister of justice, in the Bosnian Serbs’ self-declared entitiy Republika Srpska in 1992 – said he agreed with Karadzic’s assertions that the government took various steps to stop and further prevent unlawful conduct towards non-Serb civilians.

“I can confirm that the police of Republika Srpska was trying in every conceivable way to enforce legality on all levels on the ground,” Mandic told Karadzic. "....The [Bosnian] Serb government never had criminal intentions, especially not the government where I was a member.”

“Can you say that it is correct or incorrect that the police of Republika Srpska did not only treat crimes negligently but also committed them?” asked Karadzic, who is defending himself.

“There are individuals who are corrupt and committed certain crimes— but that can be case in any police force in world,” Mandic replied. “I’m certain that in 1992 the police did not commit any crimes in any organised fashion. They either waged war under the command of the army, or protected law and order.”

During the lengthy examination, Karadzic produced numerous Bosnian Serb documents and orders meant to illustrate this point. One document, issued in June 1992, talked about “robberies and looting of even Serb people” and “the measures [implemented] to prevent this”.

Karadzic also cited orders he gave to the army and police in June 1992 about “observing international norms and the Geneva conventions” when it came to the treatment of non-Serb civilians. Further instructions read aloud in court stipulated that “representatives of the [International Committee for the Red Cross] shall be entitled to visit and assist captured persons as soon as possible”.

However, Karadzic also contended that, amid the chaos of war, his government was “groping in the dark” to implement these and other instructions in the municipalities captured by Bosnian Serb forces.

Mandic agreed, stating that “the seat of government and [its] organs were terribly isolated.

“Once the war started there were conflicts in every part of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina,” he continued. “There was general chaos and commotion, and all roads and communication were interrupted. I think both the people and the government lost their heads at that point.”

According to the prosecutor’s pre-trial brief, Karadzic created crisis staffs on a regional and municipal level to “take over power in [Bosnian Serb] claimed municipalities and effect the forcible removal of Muslims and Croats from the territory”.

However, this week Karadzic cited documents which he said illustrated the struggle with the local governing bodies.

One document read aloud in court stated that the Bosnian Serb autonomous regions “had power in their own hands” and that “this is the proper Serb tendency of insisting on autonomy…[and] creating small princely states with small princes in them”.

“Would you say, minister, that the government tried to centralise [its] administration to carry out the indictment or to prevent what is mentioned in the indictment?” Karadzic asked.

“The government tried to centralise because on the ground there were certain breaches of law, especially in relation to the non-Serb population,” responded Mandic.

Karadzic, the president of Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, is accused of planning and overseeing the massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, as well as the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.

The indictment - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that he was 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”.
Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.

During his examination, Karadzic also asked Mandic about problems between the civilian and military police units, and if “these structures besmirched each other as a result of rivalries and misunderstandings”.

“In certain situations, the army even disobeyed you, and you were the commander-in-chief,” said Mandic.

The witness said that because crimes committed “in the field” fell under the jurisdiction of the military courts, he made several efforts in July 1992 to combine the civilian and military judicial organs, since the civilian system was “more professional and better organised” than the military one.

However, Mandic said this proposal was initially rejected by members of the Bosnian Serb assembly and by the army itself.

“It was a big mistake that the initiative of the ministry of justice was not accepted in early July,” he said. “If we had started this earlier, there would be fewer crimes, and the judgements would be deterrents to others.”

Karadzic’s examination also touched on the issue of paramilitary units operating in Bosnia, which the witness spoke of at length when examined by the prosecution last week.

The accused produced a government document from early July 1992, which stated that the Bosnian Serb presidency was receiving reports that paramilitary groups were “terrorising and taking vengeance on the civilian population”.

The document, read aloud in court, further stated that the ministry of interior, MUP, was to be tasked with “investigating and preventing acts of these independent groups”.

Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon interjected at that point to ask if the witness remembered the results of such investigations.

“No, your honor,” replied Mandic.

He said that since he was in the ministry of justice, and not the interior ministry, he was not familiar with the results of the investigation. In addition, he said that armed paramilitary groups would be dealt with by the military courts and not civilian courts.

“Do you know of a single paramilitary we tolerated the moment we knew about it?” asked Karadzic.

“I know that in the summer of 1992 police arrested some [members of the Serbian paramilitary] Yellow Wasps in Zvornik,” answered Mandic.

He added that the Bosnian Serb army also arrested “people who call themselves ‘Seselj’s men’”, who were allegedly led by Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, currently standing trial at the tribunal.

“There were conflicts between the army troops and the paramilitaries which did not wish to put themselves under the regular army [command],” continued Mandic.

Karadzic then mentioned the video shown during the prosecution’s examination, where the accused is seen greeting – and being saluted by - paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan. His group, the Serbian Volunteer Guard, better known as Arkan’s Tigers, are said to have been one of the most feared paramilitary formations to operate during the Bosnian war.

Arkan was indicted by the tribunal in 1997 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the murder, cruel treatment and rape of non-Serb civilians. However, before he could be arrested, he was gunned down in 2000 in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel.

This week, Karadzic asked Mandic if “from 1991 to 1995 there was a single criminal complaint” filed against Arkan.

“Not to my knowledge,” Mandic replied.

Karadzic then contended that Arkan and his units were “disciplined and well-equipped”.

“I’m not aware of that,” Mandic said.

As he did last week, Mandic said that Biljana Plavsic, Bosnian Serb presidency member and a close associate of Karadzic’s, was the one who invited the paramilitaries to fight in Bosnia. This caused a conflict between her and the ministry of interior, which wanted the groups removed, Mandic said.

“This was a big problem because she was in a position of authority and had influence among the Serb people,” Mandic said.

Later, Karadzic brought up the Bosnian Serb run detention camps that came under international scrutiny in August 1992, when foreign journalists photographed skeletal male prisoners standing behind barbed wire.

In the tribunal judgement of Milomar Stakic, former president of the Bosnian Serb crisis staff in the northern Bosnian town of Prijedor, judges found that “killings on [a] massive scale” were committed in the nearby camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, as well as rapes and beatings.

Karadzic produced an order in court, issued in 1992 by the Bosnian Serb ministry of interior, that called for the “prevention of any form of abuse” and that the premises where prisoners are held must “fulfill basic requirements for hygiene and health”.

He also produced documents that detailed numbers of prisoners sent to each camp. He said that while over 1,000 prisoners were transferred to the Manjaca camp in northern Bosnia, others were “freed and volunteered to go to Trnopolje”, a camp near Prijedor.

“Does this report show that more than 50 per cent were freed from further investigation?” asked Karadzic.

Mandic asked him to rephrase the question, at which Judge Kwon interjected and asked the witness if “those who were transferred to Trnopolje were freed”.

“That’s why I asked Mr Karadzic to rephrase the question because it says [the prisoners were] placed in the open reception centre of Trnopolje,” Mandic said. “Whether it was an open or closed reception centre, I don’t know.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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