Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbian paramilitary units beyond Bosnia’s borders were personally invited by a member of the Bosnian Serb leadership to fight for them, a witness in the trial of Radovan Karadzic said this week.
These paramilitary units, some of whom have featured in trials at the Hague tribunal, became notorious for terrorising, killing and raping non-Serb civilians during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.
Continuing his testimony from last week, ex-Bosnian Serb government minister and court witness Momcilo Mandic claimed that Biljana Plavsic, a close associate of Karadzic’s and a member of the wartime presidency, personally issued the invitations and refused to remove the paramilitaries when reports of their brutality began to surface.
“When [the paramilitaries] had nothing to loot anymore from non-Serbs, they would loot property of the Serbs,” said Mandic, who served as deputy interior minister and then minister of justice in Karadzic’s government during 1992.
“The minister of interior asked for Mrs Plavsic not to conduct such a policy, and professors being professors, she took it personally,” Mandic continued.
Mandic said that Plavsic, a biology professor prior to the war, should have been removed from her post. If she had, he said, “there would be far fewer representatives from Republika Srpska [standing trial] here”.
He said those who abided by the law should have been respected. “Mrs Plavsic was an evil person who said these things out of her own personal motives,” he added.
Plavsic, now 80, was indicted by the tribunal in 2000 for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder and persecutions. As part of a 2002 plea agreement, she pleaded guilty to one count of persecution and was sentenced to 11 years in prison – which she served in Sweden - but was granted early release in October 2009.
Mandic said this week that tribunal indictee Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, attempted to have certain paramilitary members arrested, but Plavsic “would intercede on their behalf to have them released”.
Plavsic exerted “great authority” within the Bosnian Serb government, Mandic said.
“In some ways she was an even greater authority than the president of Republika Srpska,” he said, referring to Karadzic, who is charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged plan to permanently remove non-Serbs from Bosnian Serb claimed territory.
Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, along with Plavsic and several others, were part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at achieving that goal.
According to documents read by Tieger in court, it was Karadzic who originally “made a call to volunteers”.
Reading aloud from the transcripts of a November 1992 Bosnian Serb assembly session, Tieger quoted Plavsic as stating, “It is the truth, not rumour … that after the statement made by the president of the republic, ie his call to volunteers in all Serbian lands and all other Orthodox countries, I sent letters to all addresses.”
Tieger then asked Mandic if her words indicated that other Bosnian Serb leaders thought highly of the paramilitary leaders and wanted them to fight in Bosnia.
“I was not aware of anything like that,” responded Mandic.
Tieger proceeded to show video footage from October 1995, which showed Karadzic being saluted by a group of soldiers.
“The battalion of the Serbian volunteer guard is lined up in your honour,” said one of the soldiers in the video.
Karadzic responds by saying that he is “deeply thankful”.
“I congratulate you and hope we meet again in peace,” Karadzic said.
The witness said he had not seen the video before, but confirmed that it featured Karadzic and paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan. His group, the Serbian Volunteer Guard – better known as Arkan’s Tigers - are said to have been one of the most feared paramilitary formations to operate during the Bosnian war.
Arkan was indicted by the tribunal in 1997 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the murder, cruel treatment and rape of non-Serb civilians. However, before he could be arrested, he was gunned down in 2000 in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel, effectively terminating the case against him.
Tieger asked Mandic if the video “refreshed his recollection” regarding Bosnian Serb leadership support for the paramilitaries, but Mandic insisted it was Plavsic who was responsible for liaising with them.
“She was the bridge between the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and these people who came from other states, to best of my knowledge of course,” he said.
Additional video footage – this time in grainy black and white - showed Plavsic greeting Arkan with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks. The 1992 footage, taken on what appeared to be a busy street in the north-eastern Bosnian town of Bjeljina, was aired repeatedly on Bosnian television, Mandic said.
“She did a job that she wasn’t really good at doing,” he continued. “In an exhibitionist way she gained popularity among the people and became a leader among the people.”
Tieger also questioned Mandic about the existence of detention camps for non-Serb prisoners of war in northwest Bosnia. In 1992, Mandic was named as part of a government commission to investigate alleged abuses in these camps, but he said he never actually took part in it.
Mandic also claimed not to recall the “international outcry” after British journalists visited the camps in August 1992 and took photographs of skeletal detainees standing behind barbed wire.
Tieger then referred to additional statements Plavsic made during a July 1992 television interview, where she claimed that all of the prisoners – a few thousand of them – “were sentenced by a judge and in detention for a certain period of time”.
Mandic responded that “of course she wasn’t right.
“Obviously Mrs Plavsic is not very well versed in the judiciary. You know, she got a doctorate in the field of snails. She has no idea whatsoever about any of this.”
“She wasn’t speaking as expert in the field of snails,” responded Tieger. “She was speaking as a member of the presidency of Republika Srpska.”
“How can she say that in such a short period of time [thousands] of persons can be tried, prosecuted and sentenced? That is impossible,” Mandic said.
“You are an eminent lawyer, Mr Tieger, you know how many trial chambers and judges you need to try [that many] persons. I would not say this is sheer foolishness, but it’s something along those lines,” he continued.
When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine Mandic, he began by apologising to the witness, who last week told the court that he was suspected of harbouring Karadzic when the accused was still a fugitive.
As a result, Mandic said he was imprisoned in Belgrade and questioned by tribunal investigators. He later stood trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sarajevo, but was acquitted of those charges.
“I [offer my] compassion to you because of all the suffering you underwent because of me,” Karadzic said. “Many people did suffer on my account. Please accept my apology because of what others did to you.”
Karadzic spent most of his time this week asking very detailed questions about events that occurred prior to the war, and Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon repeatedly chided him for “narrow” questions that were not directly relevant to the indictment.
Karadzic responded that he has to show “what we were confronted with”.
“What had been envisaged was no Serbs in Bosnia!” he exclaimed. “I know you want me to paint this in wider strokes….[but] I’m putting together the picture from smaller tiles in the mosaic.”
When Judge Kwon accidentally referred to the 20 hours allotted to him for cross examination as “20 minutes”, Karadzic called it a “Freudian slip”.
“As a Freudian psychologist, this … indicates you are well aware 20 hours is not enough time,” Karadzic said.
Later, he claimed that “the entire indictment against me hangs upon a thread.
“That thread is the allegation that we intended to get rid of Muslims and Croats from the territory that Bosnian Serbs laid rights upon,” Karadzic said.
“These rights were not so questionable, even the EU accepted them,” he continued. “When we speak about separation of Muslims and Croats, was it really the case that it implies throwing them out of Republika Srpska?”
“No, I was never aware of such views before war,” responded Mandic.
Mandic will continue his testimony next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight