Ex-Special Ops Soldier Denies Simatovic was Commander

Court hears that “Red Berets” title could refer to other units.

Ex-Special Ops Soldier Denies Simatovic was Commander

Court hears that “Red Berets” title could refer to other units.

Dejan Plahuta, defence witness in the Simatovic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
Dejan Plahuta, defence witness in the Simatovic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
Thursday, 24 May, 2012

A former member of a Serbian special forces unit denied last week that Hague defendant Franko Simatovic was its commander, an allegation central to the prosecution’s case.

The prosecution says that Simatovic was head of the Special Operations Unit or JSO, within Serbia’s State Security agency. As such, he was under the command of his co-accused in this trial, Jovica Stanisic, who was head of State Security, DB, from 1991 to 1998.

According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic established, organised and financed training centres for paramilitary units and other forces from Serbia which were then sent into Croatia and Bosnia, where they committed crimes and forced non-Serb populations out of seized towns and villages.

They are accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise intended to forcibly and permanently remove non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia through persecution, murder and deportation.

Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Defence witness Dejan Plahuta told the court that he joined the JSO in 1994, and Simatovic did not appear to be in charge of the unit.

“I couldn't possibly say that Simatovic was any kind of commander. In fact, I was never told who the commander was,” Plahuta said. “I just know that the main guy for the unit was a man called Milan Tepavcevic. So you could say he was a de facto commander, but not Simatovic.”

The witness also said the name “Red Berets” – which is commonly applied to the JSO – was not exclusive to it, and might also have referred to other units.

“Let me clarify to you that the 'Red Berets' could have referred to a number of units, in fact people sometimes referred to our own unit as the Red Berets, and not all Red Berets were from Serbia,” Plahuta said.

Defence lawyer Mihajlo Bakrac continued the same line of arguments, saying, “There is a string of evidence confirming that a number of units were referred to as 'Red Berets' and had absolutely nothing to do with the Serbian DB.”

Plahuta replied that this “could possibly be true.”

The defence showed Plahuta documents from the Bosnian Serb Army demanding the deployment of “Red Berets”, and referring to one Bosko Nesovic. The witness said he had “never heard” of Nesovic, meaning the reference was “probably [to] some completely separate unit”.

Asked whether he was familiar with the two defendants, the witness said he knew “publicly that Stanisic was the DB boss”.

He said he had seen Simatovic in person in March 1993, at Bajina Basta, on Serbia’s border with Bosnia.

“I was told that he was just an officer from the DB who had come to set up some surveillance equipment,” the witness recalled.

The discussion then turned to events in January 1993, when there was fighting around the Bosnia town of Skelani close to the border with Serbia.

At that point, Plahuta was not yet in the JSO, and was serving in the frontier forces of the Yugoslav army in Serbia. This made him “familiar what was going on the ground”, he said.

Plahuta acknowledged that units of the Yugoslav army crossed into Bosnian territory to respond to attacks by Bosnian government forces in mid-January 1993. But he ruled out the possibility that JSO forces were among them.

“Police from Serbia never crossed into Bosnia during the war, so also the Special Operations Unit could not possibly have been deployed,” he said. When asked by the defence how he knew this, he said he was told by police guarding the border crossing at Bajina Basta.

During cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Grace Harbour said there was evidence that Serbian DB units did in fact take part in the early 1993 fighting around Skelani, an operation which she described as “not merely a reaction to attacks, but a planned attempt to drive Muslims out of the region of eastern Bosnia”.

She referred to Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic's diary, which she said described a meeting setting out plans for the military operation in question, and mentioning Simatovic as having been present.

The witness replied, “I couldn't possibly have known anything at the time, since back then I was merely a simple border officer.”

The prosecutor said the Bosnian Serb army’s Skelani Brigade issued documents mentioning the “participation of Red Berets in the operations in and around Skelani”.

The witness replied that he had no knowledge of this. He suggested that the reference might be to “some other Red Berets”.

He reiterated he had never heard of the Red Beret officer Bosko Neskovic whose name was cited in the Bosnian Serb army document.

“I have never heard the name of this commander mentioned in there, and as a later member of the Red Berets, I probably would have heard it from some of my colleagues,” the witness said.

When the prosecutor showed the witness Neskovic’s personnel file from the DB, Plahuta repeated that he knew nothing about him.

Defence lawyer Bakrac said his team disputed the authenticity of this personnel file. Jovica Stanisic’s defence lawyer Wayne Jordash also said the file could be misleading, as it was “usual practice and therefore a possibility” for files to be “altered after the war so that he [Neskovic] could enjoy retirement benefits”.

The witness said he agreed with this statement.

The trial continues this week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.

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