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

Ganic Case Highlights Dispute Over Bosnia War's Causes

Extradition case against former Bosnian presidency member demonstrates Belgrade’s attempt to downplay its own role in the Bosnian war.
By Rory Gallivan

Serbia’s failed attempt to secure the extradition of former Bosnian presidency member Ejup Ganic from Britain highlights the huge gulf that still exists between opposing histories of the Bosnian war.

Ganic, whom Serbia accused of ordering an attack on soldiers of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, as they withdrew from barracks in Sarajevo in May 1992, was arrested in London in March at Serbia’s request. But in July, Judge Timothy Workman, who heard the extradition case, refused to grant Belgrade’s application, concluding that its pursuit of Ganic was politically motivated.

Speaking soon after Ganic’s arrest, Damir Arnaut, an adviser to the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency, Haris Silajdzic, was also adamant that the extradition request had no proper basis, but was instead “a continuation of Belgrade’s policy of 18 years ago”.

The legal dispute did not just pit Bosnia against Serbia; it also exposed divisions within Bosnia itself. After Silajdzic travelled to London to protest against Ganic’s arrest, Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the Serb entity in Bosnia, Republika Srpska, accused him of abusing his position.

According to Dodik, Ganic was “undoubtedly more to blame for the war than the former president of Republika Srpska Biljana Plavsic”.

Plavsic served a six-year prison sentence in Sweden after being found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, of wartime persecution of non-Serbs.

The Ganic affair has revived the dispute over who was to blame lay for Bosnia’s descent into conflict.

Sonja Biserko, president of the Belgrade branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, who was called as a witness by Ganic’s lawyers during the proceedings in London, told IWPR that the case against him should be seen as part of attempts by Serbia’s political elite to “rationalise” events at the beginning of the war to fit their own view.

“The extradition request talked about Bosniaks starting the war,” she said, arguing that the Serbian elite was determined to present a version of the origins and early stages of the war that minimised the blame apportioned to Serbia. 

A recent report from Biserko’s committee said Serbia’s pursuit of Ganic was intended “to create the impression that the conflict was due to attacks on the JNA during its withdrawal from Bosnia and Hercegovina... to reinforce the thesis promoted by Serbia that the conflict was a civil war and that all sides were equally responsible”.

Judge Workman’s judgement dismissing the case for extradition cited a previous trial in Serbia, that of former Bosnian commander Ilija Jurisic. 

The Jurisic case would have had a direct bearing on the case against Ganic if the latter had been brought to trial, as it too concerned the legitimacy of Bosnian attacks on JNA troops.

A court in Serbia sentenced Jurisic to 12 years in prison last year. He was found guilty of ordering an attack on JNA soldiers leaving barracks in the northern town of Tuzla in May 1992. The sentencing judge said the attack went against a decision issued by the Bosnian presidency in April 1992, which was in turn based on an earlier agreement between Bosnia and Yugoslavia providing for the peaceful departure of JNA troops. 

A May 1992 report by the United Nations’ then secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said the April 26 meeting in question between the-Bosnian president and Yugoslavia’s defence minister and army chief-of-staff “did not produce a definitive agreement” on the JNA’s future in Bosnia. 

Judge Workman’s ruling stated that a witness called to the London extradition hearing – Milan Petrovic, deputy prosecutor of Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecution Office – “acknowledged in cross-examination that no such agreement [between Bosnia and Yugoslavia] had been reached”. 

The witness’s admission that a key element in the Jurisic case and more broadly the Serbian narrative of the war was seized on by Silajdzic. Shortly after Judge Workman issued his ruling, Silajdzic wrote to Serbian president Boris Tadic to complain that Jurisic had been convicted on the basis of a “phantom agreement”.

Predictably, the British court’s refusal to extradite Ganic was not well received in Serbia.

“The judge’s comment that somebody in Serbia might be tried on political grounds is incomprehensible to me, and is a personal offence,” President Tadic said.

With the basic facts underpinning the start of the conflict still in dispute, the gulf between the Serbian and Bosnian views of history and their significance for contemporary legal processes remains hard to bridge.

“The London court’s explanation of its decision was never presented to ordinary people in Serbia,” Gordana Knezevic, former deputy editor of the Bosnian newspaper Oslobodjenje, explained. “The judgement was reported everywhere, along with the opinion that the British court is ‘political’ and ‘unfair’.”

Rory Gallivan is an IWPR contributor in London


More IWPR's Global Voices