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

Bosnian Serb Officials "Aware" of "Police Crimes"

Karadzic trial hears that senior police officials knew about alleged abuses by officers.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Dr Christian Nielsen, an expert witness in the Radovan Karadzic trial at the Hague tribunal. (Photo: ICTY)
    Dr Christian Nielsen, an expert witness in the Radovan Karadzic trial at the Hague tribunal. (Photo: ICTY)

An expert witness in the Radovan Karadzic trial at the Hague tribunal testified this week that the wartime Bosnian Serb ministry of interior was aware that members of its police force were committing crimes against non-Serbs, including the looting of their property.

“It was a struggle throughout 1992 for law and order to be established in the territory of the Serb republic,” said witness Dr Christian Nielsen, a historian who worked in the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, between 2002 and 2004 as a research officer and intelligence analyst. He authored three reports on the workings of the wartime Bosnian Serb ministry of interior, known as the MUP, and testified previously in two other trials at the tribunal.

“The [MUP] at this point was aware…that in some cases the police were engaged in the perpetration of various criminal offences, including looting,” Nielsen said.

The problem was especially acute in the reserve forces and in the “special police units”, he added.

This was the second week of Nielsen’s lengthy testimony, during which he was cross examined by the defendant for nearly three full days.

Karadzic presented the witness with an internal wartime document stating that the MUP should investigate “everything” – that is, crimes committed by everyone, including Serbs.

“That is correct, that is what the document states,” Nielsen answered.

“As I have noted in my report, I find it significant here that [the MUP] finds it necessary to emphasise that it’s also necessary to document war crimes that are committed by Serbs,” the witness continued. “This shows that at least some people in the MUP did not understand that war crimes needed to be documented regardless of who victims and perpetrators were.”

“Do you agree that at first people could not know who was prone to crime unless they exhibited some criminal activity?” Karadzic asked at one point.

“I cannot agree with that conclusion,” Nielsen said. “…Unfortunately, the police in the Serb republic at outset of conflict took the attitude that those persons should be allowed carte blanche to undertake operations as long as they were doing so as ‘patriots’.”

Karadzic continued to press the point by bringing up a Serbian proverb to illustrate that “time was needed to see who was prone to crime”.

“It doesn’t snow so that the hills are covered but to have every animal show its traces,” he put to the witness.

“That is certainly possible, but I’ll refer to another proverb,” Nielsen responded, quickly switching into the Serbian language, which he speaks fluently.

“This old woman is combing her hair regardless of the fact that the village is on fire,” Nielsen said, in relation to “how the police behaved” at the time.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, is 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".

He is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of some 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. Karadzic, who represents himself in the courtroom, was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.

During the cross-examination, Karadzic repeatedly mentioned the infighting that occurred within different branches of Karadzic’s newly formed government.

Nielsen acknowledged the “virulent exchanges” between the ministry of justice and the MUP during 1992, who blamed each other “for the problems being encountered with establishing the rule of law in Republika Srpska”.

“That was quite a burden on state bodies, including the president who had to be an arbiter between them,” Karadzic remarked.

“Certainly in any government when there are strong personalities…that will create certain challenges for the prime minister… and for the presidency that sits above the government,” Nielsen responded. “As for how much of a burden that was…I would defer to your expertise there.”

There was also tension between the police and the Bosnian Serb army, Karadzic said, since many members of the police were deployed into the army.

“Until the very end of 1992, the police continued to be heavily engaged in combat activities,” Nielsen confirmed. “Here we have a case where both the army and police seem to be constantly disagreeing as to who is bearing brunt of the burden of combat activities.”

“There are indications of [Bosnian Serb army] officers accusing the police of harbouring people seeking police employment to avoid combat,” he continued.

He added that from the MUP’s perspective, the army was “relaxing while the MUP bears the brunt of the burden” and that if someone was transferred from the MUP to the army, it was “equated with some kind of punishment”.

“Is my assumption correct that people are not very eager to report their own mistakes and transgressions, and are prone to waiting for inspections to come?” Karadzic asked.

“Unfortunately I think that’s the case not only in the Serb republic but in very many countries,” Nielsen said.

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.