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Former Paramilitary Denies Serbian State Support

Witness was member of “Arkan’s Tigers”.
By Velma Šarić
  • Jovan Dimitrijevic, defence witness, was a member of the Arkan’s Tigers from late 1991. (Photo: ICTY)
    Jovan Dimitrijevic, defence witness, was a member of the Arkan’s Tigers from late 1991. (Photo: ICTY)

The trial of two former Serbian intelligence officials continued this week with the appearance of a defence witness who claimed that the Serbian State Security Service, SDB, had not helped Serb paramilitaries in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war.

Franko Simatovic commanded the SDB’s special operations unit during the period relevant to the indictment, while his co-accused, Jovica Stanisic, was his superior as director of the SDB.

The two are charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise with the aim of forcibly and permanently removing non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia through persecution, murder and deportation.

Part of the indictment deals with the SDB’s relationship with a number of paramilitary groups. According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic helped establish, supply with arms, and finance paramilitary groups acting in close coordination with the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, the Serb Territorial Defence, TO, the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, and the Serb Army of Krajina, SVK, a Serb force operating in Croatia.

One of these paramilitary groups was the Serb Volunteer Guard, also known as the Tigers, commanded by Zeljko Raznatovic aka “Arkan”, an infamous Bosnian Serb warlord. Raznatovic was indicted by the Hague tribunal in March 1999, but was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000.

This week’s witness, Jovan Dimitrijevic, now an official with the Serbian Football Federation, was a member of the Arkan’s Tigers from late 1991.

He appeared in court to testify on the force’s relationship with the SDB.

The indictment against Simatovic and Stanisic alleges that the Serb Volunteer Guard was under SDB control, something the defence is trying to refute. Earlier in the trial, Srdjan Grekulovic, a witness for Stanisic’s defence, also tried to refute these allegations.

Dimitrijevic told the judges this week that his first meeting with Arkan occurred in 1991, in the town of Erdut in eastern Croatia. There, “Arkan gave everyone a quick round of introduction and wanted to know more about all the new recruits,” the witness said. “I told him that I had a university degree in economics, to which he [Arkan] said, ‘Wow, finally we have someone who can read and write.’”

The witness said the unit was “as far as I understood, integrated into the Serb TO, whose government [Serb-run administration in Eastern Slavonia] paid for its expenses, while the TO provided the first weapons [for the unit]. The JNA helped, too.”

He noted that additional weapons were captured in fighting with Croatian forces.

Asked by Simatovic's defence lawyer Mihajlo Bakrac whether the SDB supported the Guard in any way, the witness said that he was “quite sure – in fact, sure” that the force “didn't receive any support from the SDB”.

Dimitrijevic then repeated this answer, stating that it was true of the entire Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, MUP, of which the SDB was part.

Noting that he spent the whole time until March 1992 at the facility in Erdut, Dimitrijevic said he “recognised many faces of different people coming to visit the centre regularly”. The witness said they included the “local chiefs” of Serb entities such as Krajina president Goran Hadzic, the commanders of JNA units deployed in the area, and Serb leaders from Bosnia, including Biljana Plavsic.

According to Dimitrijevic, Plavsic and other Bosnian Serb leaders “visited the centre to instruct an operation to be carried out in Bosnia” in March 1992, namely in the northeastern Bosnian towns of Bijeljina and Zvornik, because “Arkan was familiar with the region; he was from there”.

The witness explained that he only went to Bijeljina “after the operation there was completed. “The operation was done swiftly, and quite efficiently”, and the JNA approved of how it went, he said.

From Erdut, Dimitrijevic said, he moved to Belgrade to coordinate logistics for the Serb Volunteer Guard. He had an office in Arkan's home there, and became friends with him, he said, as they shared “a passion for football”.

Dimitrijevic said that while he was in Erdut, his work included a number of different tasks, many of them administrative in view of his academic background.

“The whole paperwork rested with me, I wrote order documents to have weapons transferred from the Eastern Slavonia authorities, and from the JNA,” he said.

Dimitrijevic remembered having also occasionally carried out background checks on prospective members of Arkan’s force, one of whom was Milorad Ulemek-Legija, a former French Foreign Legion member who has been sentenced for initiating the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

“I can’t remember when it was, but it was after Zvornik, some time in April 1992,” he recalled. “He seemed a good guy and kept a steady progress in the unit. He was a very active instructor at Erdut.”

Ulemek-Legija was later to join the SDB, in 1996. “I remember that Arkan was pretty mad at [him] because of that... relations between the Guard and the SDB were anything but good”, the witness said.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Maxine Marcus returned to the witness’s claim that important “regional chiefs” visited the training facility in Erdut. The witness confirmed again that this included Ilija Kojic, Eastern Slavonia’s defence minister, and his deputy Milan Milovanovic.

“Did you, however, know that they were employees of the Serbian MUP at that time?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness replied that he had not known that.

Marcus went back to the 1992 operations in Bosnia, showing the witness an infamous photograph taken by Israeli photographer Ron Haviv, which featured a man “visually identifiable as a member of the Guard” kicking an injured man lying on the ground.

After she asked him whether he recognised anyone on the photograph, the witness said that he did recall the Guard member. He said, “Arkan personally punished him and kicked him out of the unit.”

Referring to his work as a logistics officer for the Serb Volunteer Guard, prosecutor Marcus showed Dimitrijevic pay lists from the SDB, with which the witness claimed he was completely unfamiliar.

“I really don't know anything about this; I'm seeing this for the first time,” he said. “The money we had as a unit didn't come from the SDB. I already said who supported us.”

Asked whether any criminal activity was involved in supporting the unit, the witness said that “this was not the case, as Arkan owned several legal companies which provided a part of the funding, as did donations from good people”.

Asked about individual names on the list, he recognised many of them, including that of the man identified in the Haviv photograph, who appeared on documents dated much later after his supposed exclusion from the unit.

“I guess what happened is that he was rehabilitated. People change; some of their mistakes are forgiven,” Dimitrijevic said.

Stanisic and Simatovic, arrested by the Serbian authorities on June 13, 2003, have both pleaded not guilty.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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