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

COMMENT: Milosevic and the Red Berets

Defendant attempts to refute prosecution claims that one of his police units fought in Croatia and Bosnia.
By Mirko Klarin

At the beginning of the presentation of evidence for the indictments for Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the prosecutor Geoffrey Nice announced that he intended to call 50-60 witnesses before Christmas.


These witnesses, he said, would “present to the trial chamber a comprehensive overview of the events” that took place in the period 1991-1995, covered by the two indictments against Slobodan Milosevic.


In the period from September 26 until December 18 – the last working day of the tribunal in 2002 – the prosecution heard only 16 witnesses, who mostly testified about the events that took place in 1991, described in Milosevic’s Croatia indictment which charges him with crimes against humanity.


There are several reasons for this delay in hearing prosecution witness testimony.


The first is Milosevic's “exhaustion”, which resulted in the loss of almost three working weeks in November. The prosecution will be compensated, and the deadline for completion of presentation of its evidence for all three indictments (May 16, 2003) will be extended to cover the lost days.


This means that unless there are new delays caused by the defendant’s health, the presentation of evidence will have to be finished by the middle of June this year.


Another reason for the delay is the marathon testimony of Milan Babic, former president of so-called Republika Srpska Krajina, which was established in a part of Croatian territory under Serbian control from 1991 to 1995. During the twelve days of his testimony, “the Knin insider” seemed to provide much of the evidence needed to prove Milosevic’s responsibility for what the Croatian indictment calls as a joint criminal enterprise.


The significance of his testimony for the prosecution is evident from the fact that Nice turned down as many as 14 previously invited witnesses - 20 per cent of the total planned for the Croatian phase of the trial - in order to hear it.


The third reason for the delay is already well known from the Kosovo phase of the trial: the extensive cross-examination of the witnesses by the accused, who has repeatedly insisted that he does not being given sufficient time to ask all the questions he would like to ask.


The prosecution does not appear unduly worried by the backlog in witness testimony - at least not yet.


And there are signs that it wants to speed things up. During the first two working days of this year, the tempo has definitely accelerated, with three witnesses, setting a new record for this phase of the trial.


In the Kosovo phase of the trial, three or four crime-base witnesses - the victims or eyewitnesses of the crimes described in the indictment - passed through the courtroom every day. This category of testimony was dominant in the Kosovo phase of the trial and accounted for two thirds of the total number of 124 witnesses heard.


The presentation of evidence for the Croatian indictment, so far, has been dominated by so-called linkage witnesses who could tie Milosevic, directly or indirectly, to the military, police and paramilitary forces, which allegedly committed the crimes described in the indictment.


In addition to Babic, significant linkage witnesses were Croatian president Stipe Mesic, two members of the Yugoslav military counterintelligence service (Slobodan Lazarevic and Mustafa Candic), two Belgrade journalists (Dejan Anastasijevic and Jovan Dulovic), two Serbian politicians from Croatia who testified under protected identities as C-037 and C-025, as well as two former members of Red Berets – the special anti-terrorist unit of Serbian secret police – which allegedly operated in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.


The commander of this unit was Franko Simatovic, known as Frenki. In the indictments for Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, he was named as one of Milosevic's accomplices, that is, one of the participants in the joint criminal enterprise.


For understandable reasons, Milosevic is especially interested in refuting claims that Frenki's Red Berets played a role in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia.


He can argue that as president of Serbia he had no legal (de jure) authority over the Yugoslav army, JNA, during the course of military operations in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992. But he cannot use the same defence in the case of regular and special units of the Serbian police, which both were de facto and de jure subordinated to the president of the republic.


Therefore, during the last week's cross-examination of protected witness K-2, once a member of Frenki’s unit, Milosevic claimed that he was “unaware of the fact that there existed a [Serbian police] unit under that name [Red Berets]”. According to him, “in almost every town in Republika Srpska and Republika Srpska Krajina [parts of Bosnia and Croatia under Serbian control] there were units that used to wear red berets and were also known under that name”.


Milosevic says this means that those crimes in Croatia and Bosnia that are attributed Frenki's Red Berets were actually committed by local forces, which had nothing to do with Serbian secret police and him as the president of Serbia.


K-2 testified that in May 1995, after graduating from a police academy, he joined the Red Berets, that is, the special anti-terrorist unit of Serbian secret police.


He attended several training camps in Eastern Slavonija (part of Croatia which at the time was under control of Serbian forces) and was trained in martial arts, including “silent liquidations” – using knife, cord or bare hands to break necks.


They were not allowed to tell anyone about their unit, about its purpose or name. During one meeting, Frenki told them that they “would have to do whatever they are asked to do to”, that they “cannot refuse any order”, and that, therefore, “the president's doors were always open for them”.


Questioned over which particular president Frenki had in mind, K-2 replied, “There was but one president, and that was Slobodan Milosevic.”


An especially important part of the linkage testimony of K-2 was the part concerning weapons transported on a regular basis from Serbia to bases in Eastern Slavonija on trucks with state security registration. From these bases Arkan's “Tigers” and other Serbian paramilitary formations, operating in Croatia in the period from 1991 to 1996, were armed, K-2 alleged.


During cross-examination, Milosevic did not miss a chance to broach a spicy detail about K-2 that might reveal his identity. He asked him if it was true that he was involved in the killing of Arkan and suggested that this was the reason he’d fled Serbia.


The witness said it was, at which point the judges, upon the prosecutor’s request, decided that further discussion of this issue should take place in a private session.


The remaining two witnesses heard during the last week belonged to the crime-base category. Robert Hausvicka, former member of Croatian special police, testified about the torture to which he was exposed after being captured by JNA soldiers in the vicinity of Dubrovnik in October 1991. During the following 9 months, he was exposed to daily torture and humiliation in a military prison in Bileca (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the Morinja camp (Montenegro).


About 80 per cent of inmates at both these places, Hausvicka alleged, were civilians. To date, the witness suffers from physical and especially psychological consequences of the torture to which he was exposed. As a result of this, in the middle of 1994, he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave the special police forces, to which he had returned after being exchanged for captured JNA members in July 1992.


In cross-examination, Milosevic tried to get the witness to say that his torturers were members of paramilitary units or volunteers, and not JNA soldiers or officers. Hausvicka replied that the abuse took place in JNA installations in the presence, and sometimes with the participation, of men in Yugoslav military uniforms.


In his cross-examination of the last witness heard in 2002, the wartime mayor of Dubrovnik, Petar Poljanic, Milosevic sought to lay the blame for the conflict on the Croatian side, saying, “Nothing would have happened in Dubrovnik… had it not been for the fire directed at JNA from the city."


The witness, however, claimed that exactly the opposite happened, that the JNA fired at Dubrovnik, and he invited Milosevic – “if he ever gets a chance” – to visit the city graveyard where one hundred young men who died defending it were buried.


The defendant said the latter “were not killed by JNA, but by the `crazy idea of violent Croatian secession from Yugoslavia”. The witness, who spent the greater part of his cross-examination looking at the judges in front of him, turned towards the accused and, looking at him straight in the eye, replied, “No, they were killed by your crazy idea of Greater Serbia.”


It was at this point that presiding judge Richard May warned the accused and the witness that they were digressing “from the theme of the testimony”.


The last witness from last week, C-1204, whose identity was protected, testified about the joint attack by the JNA and Serbian paramilitary formations on the village of Lovas in Eastern Slavonija, close to the border with Serbia.


The attack was carried out in accordance with the pattern described by many crime-base witnesses from Kosovo: the village was first shelled from tanks, then the infantry entered firing their guns, about twenty local men were killed on the spot, and the soldiers searched the Croatian houses for guns and ordered their inhabitants to mark the houses with white sheets, so that they could be distinguished from Serbian property.


Then buses brought the soldiers and paramilitary units from Serbia who started systematic looting of abandoned Croatian houses, and the Croats who stayed in the village were ordered to wear white stripes on their sleeves.


One day, all the local men were gathered in the centre of the village, where they were mistreated and forced to spend the night sitting in the open. In the morning, they were lined up and taken out of the village to supposedly clear mines in a nearby clover field. They were forced to walk over the minefield, detonating the mines as they went – 21 of them died. Their names are listed in an annex to the indictment against Milosevic.


Once again, Milosevic tried to protect the JNA, claiming that those responsible for the crimes in Lovas were members of paramilitary forces and volunteers.


But it seems that he disregarded the testimonies heard so far, which linked the Serbian paramilitary formations with the JNA, and the defendant with units of the former which operated in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1991 until 1995.


Mirko Klarin is a senior IWPR editor and the editor in chief of SENSE news agency.


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