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Consternation at Serbian Security Officers' Acquittal

Verdict means war crimes "rewarded" - Mothers of Srebrenica member.
By Dzenana Karabegovic, Ognjen Zorić
  • Srebrenica victims. (Photo: Still from Uspomene 677, a documentary by Mirko Pincelli)
    Srebrenica victims. (Photo: Still from Uspomene 677, a documentary by Mirko Pincelli)

The acquittal of two top Serbian intelligence officials in The Hague last week caused outrage in Bosnia, especially among survivors of the 1995 mass killings in Srebrenica, since prosecutors had said armed units subordinate to the pair were involved. 

In Serbia, reactions were more mixed, with government officials expressing quiet satisfaction as human rights defenders pointed out the dangers of ignoring the past.

Jovica Stanisic, the former head of Serbia’s State Security Service or DB, and his subordinate Franko Simatovic, who ran the Red Berets, a special operations unit in the DB, were found not guilty of everything they were charged with on May 30, and released immediately. (See Serbian Security Chiefs Acquitted
on the judges' reasoning.)

The two men faced counts of murder, persecution, deportation and forcible population transfer. The indictment said they were part of a “joint criminal enterprise” seeking to carve Serb-only territories out of Croatia and Bosnia. Stanisic and Simatovic, prosecutors said, played a role in this by setting up and funding covert training centres for Serb paramilitary units and other forces which proceeded to carry out serious abuses in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts.

With one of the three judges dissenting, a majority on the trial panel judges found there was insufficient evidence to show that the activities of either man proved intent to contribute to “forcibly and permanently removing the majority of non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina”.

Although the chamber found that the defendants set up and ran the DB Red Berets unit, and that their efforts “assisted the commission of crimes” in two Bosnian locations Doboj and Bosanski Samac, their assistance was “not specifically directed” towards the commission of murder and other crimes. Nor did the majority find that either of the accused aided and abetted crimes committed by paramilitary groups like Arkan’s Tigers and the Scorpions.

The indictment alleged that units controlled by Stanisic and Simatovic including both Red Berets and Scorpions were part of the Bosnian Serb offensive of July 1995 in which the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves were overrun. More than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys from Srebrenica were systematically killed in the days that followed, in what other tribunal verdicts have characterised as an act of genocide.

Prosecutors said the Scorpions killed around 21 captives, including six whose murders in the village of Trnovo were recorded on video by a unit member. Four members of the unit were jailed by a court in Serbia in 2007.

Alluding to this notorious recording, Hatidza Mehmedovic of the Mothers of Srebrenica association said the Hague ruling meant that “war crimes have been rewarded, genocide has been rewarded, and the killings that were videotaped have been rewarded”.

“This sends a message to the younger generation that crime pays,” she added.

Dr Ilijaz Pilav, a surgeon who spent the Bosnian war working at the hospital in Srebrenica, said he failed to comprehend how the defendants were not held responsible for the Scorpions’ actions.

“My first reaction when I heard the verdict was that it must be a mistake,” he said, noting that Stanisic and Simatovic belonged to the “inner circle” of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 during his trial for committing genocide at Srebrenica.

Fadila Memisevic, head of the Society of Endangered Peoples in Bosnia, pointed to “the amount of evidence that the prosecution presented at trial about the participation of special forces from Serbia in the Bosnian war”.

Despite the body of evidence, Memisevic said, “According to this ruling, Serbia never participated in the war. This is sham justice. In 20 or 30 years’ time we’ll have another war here because we failed to deal with our past, we just brushed it under the carpet.”

In Serbia, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic issued a statement arguing that the Hague judges’ decision was “of great importance for Serbia”.

“The Serbian government advocates fair trials at the Hague tribunal, because that is the only way of establishing the truth about war crimes and creating the conditions for reconciliation and lasting peace and stability in the region,” the statement said.

The War Crimes Prosecution Office in Serbia, meanwhile, announced that it would be asking the Hague tribunal for all the evidence that was presented in the case against Stanisic and Simatovic. Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said this was because many of the crimes cited in the case were currently subject to investigation in Serbia.

“We are doing our best to reveal both the direct perpetrators and those who issued the orders,” Vukcevic said.

Human rights activists in Serbia warned that the judgement could make it harder for the country to face up to the past.

“This verdict comes as a surprise to all of us who closely followed everything that went on in Croatia and Bosnia during the war,” Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said. “It now looks like the Serbs in Bosnia organised this war all by themselves, and that Serbia wasn’t involved at all. Yet here in Serbia we have 400,000 veterans of the war. These are facts that cannot be overlooked.”

Sandra Orlovic of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade spoke about the verdict’s impact on victims in Bosnia and Croatia.

“The victims of war crimes may be left very dissatisfied, and remain so for a long time,” she said. “It’s hard to say what could bring them any sense of satisfaction after this ruling.”

Dzenana Karabegovic in Sarajevo and Ognjen Zoric in Belgrade both report for RFE/RL and IWPR.