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

Hague Witness Threat Lessened

A Serbian network that allegedly harassed witnesses in the Milosevic trial is being broken up following the Djindjic assassination.
By Emir Suljagic

Men suspected of intimidating potential Milosevic trial witnesses are being arrested during the Serbian police crackdown that followed the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.


It has long been an open secret that while Milosevic has refused the services of an official defence lawyer - declaring he does not recognise The Hague tribunal - he maintains a large team of advisers in Serbia.


They give him legal advice by phone on a daily basis, and also provide information - much of it gleaned from the former regime’s official files - on events relating to the trial and Hague witnesses.


But there is another team also allegedly at work, and tribunal officials here say they have been intimidating present and potential witnesses.


Now these men are being caught during the Serbian police operation to round up suspected criminals implicated in the March 12 assassination.


There is a suspicion that Milosevic’s band of helpers extends far into the Serbian body politic, as the same men who helped carry out the war crimes he is accused of command responsibility for were still in positions of power until very recently.


Attention has so far focused on the Serbian interior ministry’s highly secret Special Operations Unit, JSO - a key element of the Milosevic regime.


When Milosevic lost the October 2000 election, the JSO, or Red Berets, made a deal with Djindjic: he would leave them alone, and they would not stand in the way of a new government taking power.


But now the former JSO chiefs, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, are in detention - considered to be prime assassination suspects - and the unit has been disbanded.


Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic recently alleged that the JSO had “encouraged [war crimes] suspects not to respond to tribunal summonses”.


In a related development, a tribunal source told IWPR that prosecutors have asked Serbia for a list of all those who have been arrested, to see if they include anyone currently under investigation by The Hague. The source says indictments are almost certain to follow.


This is a two-way process, with prosecutors sending information on these men to investigators in Belgrade.


The question of witness intimidation is a serious one – and the Milosevic trial has been notorious for it from the start.


Several potential witnesses have already been terrified into refusing to testify - at least two because of threats made to their families.


While the likes of Stanisic and Simatovic have been detained in the crackdown, there is unease in some circles that a number of important Milosevic loyalists remain in positions of power.


In fact one of them, Sretan Lukic, is leading the police crackdown on the JSO. Lukic is the Serbian interior ministry’s public security chief - a post he was given by Milosevic and has retained ever since.


“Look who is arresting these people, ” said an IWPR source, referring to the detention of assassination suspects. “The authorities are making the same mistake Djindjic made - and paid for two years later.”


Meanwhile, the Montenegrin newspaper Dan - which has made a habit of reporting confidential parts of the Milosevic trial - may now have been silenced following the indictment of its editor, Dusko Jovanovic.


The indictment charges Jovanovic with naming a key witness - a former Montenegrin soldier - who gave evidence in the Milosevic trial under the code name K-32 last October, and accuses the Dan editor of contempt.


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.