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

Comment: The Noose Tightens in Bosnia

This time, the international community is deadly serious about cleaning up the political environment that has allowed Radovan Karadzic to stay out of jail.

In the past, the legions of international advisors, soldiers, and non-government organisations in Bosnia have often been viewed as ineffective or irrelevant. But this year, things finally started to change.

SFOR, the NATO-led military force implementing the Dayton peace accords, has sometimes been regarded as a paper tiger that is either unwilling or unable to go after war criminals and their supporters. And the many foreign advisors to the Bosnian government have been seen as equally ineffective, with corrupt local politicians and their allies in the world of organised crime controlling the political and economic scene with little hindrance.

But the Office of the High Representative, OHR, the United States government and SFOR recently made a joint announcement that they are adopting an aggressive new course of action against war criminals and their supporters.

As part of this policy, OHR removed Mirko Sarovic, a former member of the Bosnian presidency, from his current position as deputy chairman of the hardline nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, and fired three police officers for supporting former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

For its part, the United States added Sarovic and nine other Karadzic supporters to its visa ban list and barred any US contact with them.

SFOR’s commander, Major-General Virgil Packett, gave a blunt warning that SFOR would accelerate its pursuit of those who support war criminals, and warned that “the noose around Karadzic is getting tighter”.

Since taking command of SFOR at the beginning of October, Packett has begun flexing his muscles.

In the past month alone, his troops arrested two high-profile supporters of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. First, they arrested Dusan “Bato” Tesic, a former member of the Bosnian Serb Special Police who is known to be one of Karadzic’s key supporters. SFOR then conducted a follow-up raid in Bijejlina where they grabbed Zeljko “Luna” Jovanovic, another of Karadzic’s bodyguards.

As a result of these arrests and other actions, there is now a palpable sense in Bosnia that NATO might finally be serious about arresting Karadzic. While SFOR’s recent high-profile raid in Pale failed to find him, the chief prosecutor at the Hague war crimes tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, claims they missed him by only two hours.

It is also apparent that the five million US dollar bounty on the former Bosnian Serb leader’s head is starting to produce results, as his brother Luka complained publicly that Serb “traitors” had tipped SFOR off about Karadzic’s location in Pale, for “mercenary” reasons.

Even more importantly, SFOR has joined forces with international and local prosecutors in the recently-established Bosnian State Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to break the back of entrenched ethnic interest groups.

Earlier this month, for example, SFOR sent troops to Mostar to arrest Ante Jelavic, a former member of the Bosnian presidency who was forced out of office due to his alleged ties to hard-core Croat nationalists. They also arrested Jelavic’s associates, former Federation defence minister Miroslav Prce, and prominent businessman and Croatian nationalist Miroslav Rupcic. All three are now facing criminal prosecution in the Bosnia’s State Court.

Several other high-profile arrests have been initiated by the new international team of prosecutors and their local allies, such as the detention of Asim Fazlic, the deputy director of Interpol in Bosnia.

Beyond high-level cases such as Jelavic and Fazlic, there has also been an attempt to target mafia kingpins. Following his arrest last year, Milorad Milakovic was prosecuted before international judges in the state court, on charges that he masterminded a large human trafficking ring. Further prosecutions are expected this year.

The spotlight on people-smuggling has had a positive effect on the broader campaign to detain nationalists who protect war crimes suspects, as well as people involved in other forms of organised crime, because these different areas are closely interlinked. The deployment of law-enforcement officers at the US and other embassies to deal with human trafficking has reinvigorated the war on political corruption and ethnically-based mafia groups.

The OHR has – in addition to removing Karadzic supporters from office – been busily tidying up unfinished business around Bosnia. In January, Lord Paddy Ashdown finally imposed his own solution to unify ethnically divided Mostar, after years of delay and obfuscation by local politicians tied to ethnic hardliners. He has also put pressure on the Bosnian government to get the stillborn national police force SIPA up and running in the next few months.

For too long now, the international community’s complacency has allowed the complex web of nationalist and criminal interests to thrive here in Bosnia. This inactivity has denied ordinary Bosnians the opportunity for justice, the ability to develop economically and the chance to move on from their painful past.

But at long last, the international community appears to be getting serious about helping Bosnia end years of partisan ethnic politics and rule by mafia-controlled politicians.

As one international criminal law advisor in Bosnia put it, “this is the year we start kicking ass and taking names”. It’s about time.

Erik Larson is the Criminal Law Liaison to Bosnia-Herzegovina for ABA-CEELI (American Bar Association – Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative) and a former captain in the US Army’s Military Police Corps. He wrote this article in a private capacity.