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A leading human rights group has condemned the conviction this week in Belgrade of a former high-ranking Bosnian police commander for atrocities committed in May 1992 in Tuzla, Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Bosnian Croat Ilija Jurisic, a former Bosnian interior ministry officer and security official in Tuzla, was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment at the Belgrade district court's war crimes chamber, after being found guilty of killing at least 51 members of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and wounding at least 44, in an ambush by Bosnian police in the north-eastern Bosnian city.
The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, which monitored the trial of Jurisic, said the court failed to establish his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Jurisic was arrested at Belgrade's international airport in May 12, 2007 as he tried to travel to Germany. His trial began in Belgrade on February 22, 2008, and 78 witnesses were examined during the proceedings.
The three-member panel of judges in the case found that Jurisic – who was in the reserve force of the Bosnian ministry of the interior – had been on duty in Tuzla when he received orders from his superior officer, Mehmed Bajric, to attack the JNA.
Judges ruled that he then issued an order to Bosnian police units to attack the column of 92nd motorised brigade of the JNA, disregarding a ceasefire agreement between JNA sub-colonel Mile Dubajic and Tuzla’s then mayor Selim Beslagic that the soldiers be allowed to pass through the city without attack.
As a result of this order from Jurisic, Bosnian police snipers attacked a part of the JNA convoy which had became separated from the rest of the column. They shot and killed the drivers of the military vehicles, and blocked the column before opening fire on the remaining soldiers, judges said.
Judges found Jurisic guilty of the criminal use of impermissible means of combat for ordering the attack on the JNA column, which was peacefully retreating after having been blockaded in the JNA's Husinska Buna military base in the centre of Tuzla.
Bosnian territorial defence, TO, units and police forces kept the JNA soldiers surrounded for a month during the blockade in the JNA base, and the Yugoslav soldiers were without electricity, food and water during that time.
On May 15, 1992, both sides in the conflict agreed that the JNA soldiers should be allowed to leave the city, judges said.
Presiding judge Vinka Beraha Nikicevic said that the court had established that an agreement had existed between Bosnian and former Yugoslav officials, as well as between Tuzla civil and military authorities and the JNA, that the men would be allowed to retreat peacefully from Tuzla.
Jurisic knew at the time of the attack that due to this agreement, he should have refused the order to carry out the attack, Judge Beraha Nikicevic said.
But the moment the JNA column tried to pass through the city's Skojevska Street, snipers hiding in buildings shot the drivers of the military vehicles, the judgement said. This stopped the column and blocked its further passage along the street, it added.
The court concluded that a plan to attack the JNA column had existed and that Jurisic, when he received the order from Bajric, had passed this order by radio to the ground units, which were waiting for the JNA column to pass.
At the beginning of the trial, Jurisic refused responsibility for the massacre. He said that he had done nothing illegal. He had no idea that the JNA was retreating from Tuzla and had only passed on the order of one of his superior officers over the radio, he said.
He said the exact words he gave were "On fire, respond with fire", and his defence lawyers said that this had been an order given to defend the Bosnian side in the event of an attack against them, and was not intended to initiate an attack on the JNA.
Following the announcement of the verdict, the HLC said in a statement the reasons for the conviction, as stated by the judge in the oral explanation of the verdict, were “not convincing”.
“The court rejected the defence’s proposal to examine witnesses who had knowledge of the activities and authority of the accused Jurisic. In so doing, the court failed to execute its most important task, which is to fully establish the facts and the responsibility of the accused,” the HLC said.
The human rights organisation added that prosecutors failed to examine one witness, Budimir Nikolic, “who was in the same office with the accused and Bajric on the critical day, and who could have testified about what was really happening, as well as about the role and authority of the accused”.
The court also failed to examine police officers who were in the field on the day of attack, although their testimonies were crucial to fully establishing whether or not the attack had already begun at the point where the accused relayed the order, what the order was, and if it was an order to defend, rather than attack, the HLC said.
The case has caused controversy in the region as Jurisic spent a great deal of time in Belgrade before the war, and his son now lives there and is a student in the Serbian military academy. Observers say that he had no personal reason to be involved in an illegal attack on the JNA in Tuzla or to feel hatred towards the then-Yugoslav troops.
His supporters have repeatedly argued that he merely passed an order for troops to fire if the JNA started to shoot first. They also say that the snipers only began to fire after JNA troops in the column started shooting at Bosnian police.
The case, which involves an incident from the start of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, still divides Bosnian and Serbian public, prosecutors and politicians.
While Bosnia insists it should have been allowed to try Jurisic, noting that he is a Bosnian citizen and that the incident took place on Bosnian soil, Serbia has declared full jurisdiction over all war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, no matter where they were committed.
At the end of last year, media reported that the Croat member of the three-man rotating Bosnian presidency, Zeljko Komsic, refused to meet Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, who was in Bosnia at the time, suggesting that the minister should have brought Jurisic with him.
This case has also created a major rift between the Serbian and Bosnian state prosecutors' offices.
One of Jurisic’s lawyers, Djordje Dozet, told IWPR that the 12-year sentence was a scandal and confirmed that Jurisic would be appealing to the Serbian supreme court.
He said that the court had failed to establish what the order given by Jurisic was, and argued that the order given had been intended to defend Bosnian Croat troops, rather than to start an attack.
Jurisic's other lawyer, Stevan Protic, told IWPR that the verdict made a mockery of justice and truth.
Milorad Barasin, chief of the Bosnian prosecutor's office, was quoted in the Belgrade daily Danas as saying Bosnian citizens should be tried in Bosnia. He said that his office was also looking into the case but this was still in the investigation phase. Barasin said that holding the trial at the Serbian court had encroached on Bosnian state sovereignty.
However, Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic told IWPR that during the case, his office had received good cooperation from the prosecutor's office in Tuzla.
The Serbian war crimes prosecutor's office welcomed the sentence.
"The war crimes prosecution will never forget any soldier who was killed in May 1992 in Tuzla. We believe that in this way, the judicial truth about that crime was determined and that this verdict is satisfaction for all their families," spokeswoman Jasna Jankovic told
the radio programme Facing Justice, which is produced by IWPR and Radio Free Europe.
She added that Jurisic might be allowed to serve his sentence in Bosnia, rather than Serbia.
One of Jurisic's supporters, chairwoman of the municipal council of Tuzla Nada Mladina, told Facing Justice the verdict was "devastating” and the case against Jurisic had not been proven.
"In my opinion, this was a political prosecution and a political verdict. Every victim deserves to have someone sentenced [for the crime committed against them] but Ilija Jurisic is not responsible,” she said.
Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.
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