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

Court Hears of Bosnian Serb Police Powers

An ex-Bosnian Serb security official said police were not trained to arrest soldiers.
By Velma Šarić

A defence witness at the trial of two former senior Bosnian Serb police officials told the Hague tribunal this week that police in Banja Luka were unable to control soldiers in the city.

The protected witness, referred to as SZ 003, a former employee of the Bosnian Serb Security Services Centre, CSB, in Banja Luka, testified with face and voice distortion.

He was giving evidence at the trial of his former boss, Stojan Zupljanin, who was chief of the CSB in 1992, and Mico Stanisic, who served as the first interior minister in Republika Srpska, RS.

Zupljanin and Stanisic are alleged to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the permanent removal of non-Serbs from the territory of an intended Serbian state. They are accused of crimes committed between April 1 and December 31, 1992, in 20 municipalities throughout Bosnia.

Zupljanin stands accused of extermination, murder, persecution, and deportation of non-Serbs in northwestern Bosnia between April and December 1992.

Stanisic is charged with murder, torture and cruel treatment of non-Serb civilians, as well as for his failure to prevent or punish crimes committed by his subordinates. Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges against them.

SZ 003 appeared in court this week as a defence witness for Zupljanin and most of his testimony was given in closed session.

In those parts of the proceedings that were held in open session, the witness told the judges that his tasks at the CSB included "regular assignments in the operational duty service", such as receiving reports from police stations and compiling them.

"This meant summing up the reports and then forwarding them to the chief,” the witness said referring to Zupljanin, whom he described as a "demanding boss" who “insisted on receiving complete daily reports and correct information on time".

However, according to the witness, communication with the police stations in the area under CSB jurisdiction was anything but easy.

"Sometimes the links would be interrupted, sometimes the information we received was incomplete, sometimes it came very late," he said.

He also confirmed that he had a rather good understanding of police structures and of the CSB and police operations in general.

Describing the situation in Banja Luka in 1992, the witness said the city had a "militarized feel to it".

"The city's streets were full of armed soldiers. They were all wearing different uniforms and insignia," he said.

He added that "the police were unable to do anything to keep these people under control", explaining that "regular police were not trained to arrest armed (military) people".

"However, we tried to keep an atmosphere of normality in Banja Luka,” the witness said. "The shops and schools were open, people went to work and there were no roadblocks in town, just a curfew at night."

SZ 003 explained that the curfew had been introduced "to ensure public safety and security for all citizens of Banja Luka. Checkpoints were also set up in the [city] for the same reason", adding that non-Serb citizens were not discriminated against or abused at those checkpoints.

"Everything was done in accordance with the law,” SZ 003 said.

During cross-examination of the witness, prosecutor Thomas Hennis asked SZ 003 whether he had any actual practical experience of the checkpoints. The witness said that he had held an office job and was not present at any of the latter.

The witness was then confronted with documents that were said to relate to CSB’s special unit and alleged complaints about its behaviour, in particular one document said to have been sent from the Bosanski Novi police station to the CSB in Banja Luka.

In this document, the local police chief is said to have complained about some members of an unspecified “special unit”.

However, the witness pointed out that the mere fact that the document was sent to CSB didn't mean that the members of a special unit described in the report were necessarily CSB staff.

"There are special units in the army, too, and the unit mentioned in the report could have been either police or military," the witness said.

Wrapping up the cross-examination, prosecutor Hennis asked the witness what he knew about the detention camps in the Prijedor area – namely Keraterm, Manjaca, Omarska, and Trnopolje.

The witness said each of these camps had a different purpose.

"Manjaca was a camp of some sort, whereas I remember that Omarska was an investigation centre. People arrested in combat were brought there for processing and investigation," he said.

"I remember that there were also collection centres in Prijedor, you know, people were hiding from the war. People were not kept in these camps forcefully,” he said.

However, when the prosecutor reminded the witness that Zupljanin himself had stated that "it is regretful that the army and the crisis staffs are locking up Muslims and Croats into camps and leaving them to the police", the witness said that this must have been misinterpreted.

"Furthermore, in many cases, in local police stations and operations centres, nobody listened to us, nor to the minister or the CSB chief,” he said.

Stanisic surrendered to the Hague tribunal in March 2005. Zupljanin was in hiding until June that same year, when he was arrested in the town of Pancevo just outside the Serbian capital Belgrade.

The trial began on September 14, 2009 and, after a short break, it will resume in the second week of October.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.