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

COURTSIDE: Court Divides Friends

Muslim prosecution witness finds himself up against his old Serbian friend.
By IWPR

Two friends and former colleagues find themselves on opposing sides of courtroom during the trial of Blagoje Simic, Milan Tadic, Simo Zaric and Milan Simic for the ethnic cleansing of the city of Bosanski Samac during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


For the whole of last week, Sulejman Tihic, deputy chairman of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, SDA, took the stand to give graphic evidence about his treatment as a detainee following the take over of Bosanski Samac by Serbian forces on April 16, 1992.


As a local politician at the time, Tihic knew all the defendants - who are currently standing trial accused of authorising the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats whilst members of the "Crisis Staff" of the "Serbian Municipality of Samac".


However, when his cross examination begins shortly, Tihic, a former lawyer and judge, was also faced with Borislav Pisaveric, a friend and former colleague, who is now counsel for the accused.


Indeed, it was Pisaveric himself who hid Tihic in his flat on April 17, 1992, when the Serbs took control of Bosanski Samac. That evening the flat was raided by members of the Serb special units and both men were arrested and taken to the local police station. There, the two were maltreated by Serbian paramilitaries, in Pisarevic's case for giving refuge to a Muslim, or, 'balija' as Tihic was referred to.


Although Tihic is a prosecution witness, the defence will cite such conduct as evidence that the Serbian paramilitaries were beyond the control of civilian authorities, such as the accused. And that their victims included Serbs themselves, like Pisarevic, as well as Muslims and Croats.


For Tihic, his arrest on April 17 led to four months of detention in various prisons and camps, ending in mid August 1992 when he was used in an exchange. After the police station at Bosanski Samac, he was moved to a Yugoslav National Army, JNA, army barracks in Brcko and Bijeljina, from there to Batajnica near Belgrade, and, finally, to a military camp in Sremska Mitrovica in northern Serbia.


Tihic testified that at all of these locations, with the exception of Brcko, he was assaulted and beaten. During his week-long testimony, Tihic gave a chilling account of his experiences. He repeated an assertion of previous witnesses before the tribunal that prisoners, in Tihic's words, "grew to like the police baton". This was because when, after heavy use, they began to crack, their guards - policemen, soldiers, members of special or paramilitary units - would beat them "with whatever was in their reach".


These implements could be wooden sticks, iron bars, riffle butts, or chairs, all of which proved more painful and dangerous than the police baton. Thus to Tihic and his fellow inmates, "The baton was a privilege. When you were beaten with a baton, you could take it". As well as physical abuse, Tihic was also forced into the detainee's "choir" and made to sing Serb nationalist, or "Chetnik", songs or insulting songs about the leader of Tihic's SDA party, Alija Izetbegovic.


Tihic also gave details of various staged media events that he was forced to take part in during his captivity. These began soon after his arrest, with an interview on Radio Samac. Taken from prison to the radio station, Tihic was "interviewed" on air by a member of the Serb special forces. His answers were scripted for him by a local journalist and prior to the interview, Tihic was told that "if he wanted to live" he had to call on Muslims over the radio to hand over weapons.


After his transfer to the army barracks in Brcko, Tihic and other local Muslim leaders were returned to a police station in Bosanski Samac and forced to take part in a TV documentary. Made by TV Novi Sad and called "Genocide in Samac", the programme sought to show how the Serb takeover had thwarted plans by Muslims and Croats to commit genocide against the local Serb population.


Those present at the police station, where the enforced interview took place, included one of the accused, Simo Zaric, as well as the then police chief Stevan Todorovic who was also charged with crimes in Bosanski Samac, but has since switched sides and will appear as prosecution witness against his co-accused. It was Todorovic who insisted that Tihic say before the cameras that the Serbian police had been "treating them correctly", regardless of the fact that his face still bore the sign of the beatings.


Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.