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

Halilovic Trial to be Followed Closely in Sarajevo

Trial expected to shed light on top Bosnian army commander’s allegedly fraught relationship with wartime president Alija Izetbegovic.
By Michael Farquhar

The trial of Sefer Halilovic – the most senior Bosnian army commander to appear before the Hague tribunal to date – is to begin on January 31.


Halilovic has pleaded not guilty to a single count of violations of the laws or customs of war in connection with the murders of 63 Bosnian Croats in Hercegovina in September 1993, when he was one of the top three figures in the Bosnian army.


Prosecutors say the killings, which were subsequently widely publicised in the international and local press, occurred during an operation to ease the blockade of Mostar, which was led by Halilovic.


They argue that Halilovic should be held responsible because he allegedly failed to take the appropriate measures to either prevent such crimes being committed by troops under his command, or to punish the perpetrators afterwards.


According to the indictment, the first round of killings began in the village of Grabovica on September 8, 1993 after local Croats refused to let Bosnian army troops billet in their homes.


When the soldiers complained about the problem, one of Halilovic’s subordinates apparently drew his hand across his throat and suggested that the offending Croats should be summarily tried - and any who refused to cooperate should be thrown into the nearby Neretva river.


Prosecutors claim that Halilovic was present when this remark was made, and that he also knew that the brigades in question had a reputation for lawlessness.


Reluctant to come under the central command of the Bosnian army, they had been involved in an armed coup in July that year and had long exercised arbitrary power in parts of Sarajevo, robbing and mistreating civilians and forcing them to dig trenches on the front line.


But even given this background, Halilovic allegedly limited himself to noting that his subordinate’s comment and gesture were inappropriate and failed to take further action.


Prosecutors claim that the resulting spate of violence left 33 civilians dead.


Halilovic later ordered an officer to investigate the incident, but prosecutors claim that no further steps were taken after this inquiry came to nothing.


Just a few days later, on September 14, another of the battalions allegedly under Halilovic’s command launched an attack on Croat forces stationed in a school in the village of Uzdol.


Prosecutors claim Halilovic had already been warned by supreme command staff chief Rasim Delic to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the killings in Grabovica. But he apparently again failed to caution his troops to act within the law, instead telling them, “We are not pleading for mercy, and we are not offering mercy.”


This time, prosecutors allege, 29 Croat civilians – mostly women, children and elderly people – were murdered, some in their beds or as they tried to flee Uzdol. They claim that one captured Croat soldier was also executed.


Again, the accused allegedly failed to launch any kind of proper investigation into the murders.


Halilovic has long protested his innocence. Even before his surrender to the tribunal in September 2001, his then lawyer Faruk Balijagic wrote to chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte claiming his client had been set up in a bizarre conspiracy involving wartime president Alija Izetbegovic.


Halilovic and the late Izetbegovic had a rocky relationship. They disagreed about how a future Bosnia should be organised and the president also publicly criticised Halilovic’s apparent reluctance to leave Sarajevo and visit troops in the field.


Taking this one step further, Balijagic claimed Izetbegovic and his co-conspirators in the army had ordered the Grabovica massacre and had then bribed witnesses to speak in the anticipated case before the Hague tribunal in an effort to “discredit” Halilovic.


Following his surrender to the tribunal, Halilovic pleaded not guilty and was released with a guarantee from the Bosnian government that he would return to the Hague for the start of his trial.


Once back in Bosnia, he tried to regain his previous post as government minister for refugees – a role many agreed he fulfilled well – but was unsuccessful.


By March 2003 Halilovic’s defence case had taken a more sober turn, as a new lawyer, Ahmet Hodzic, said he would concentrate on showing that his client was not in charge of the operation to ease the blockade on Mostar in 1993, but was in fact only involved as part of an “inspection team” with no authority over the troops involved.


Halilovic’s current defence team, Peter Morrissey and Guenael Mettraux, are likely to stick largely with this kind of argument - questioning the prosecution’s picture of the commander structure of the Bosnian army in 1993 and also trying to show that Halilovic took steps to investigate events in Grabovica and Uzdol.


There appears to be an expectation within the tribunal that the trial, based on just the one charge, will be over within the year - one of the judges assigned to the case, Judge Amin El-Mahdi of Egypt, is leaving the court in November when his current tenure expires.


In the meantime, the possibility that this trial could shed light on Halilovic’s apparently tense relationship with the Bosnian wartime leadership – including allegations that he was subject to an assassination attempt approved by Izetbegovic in 1993 – is bound to stir interest in Bosnia.


“It’s a well known fact that General Halilovic was often interrogated by Bosnian intelligence, and when he was removed from his post he was even accused of attempting a coup,” Vildana Selimbegovic, deputy director of the Sarajevo weekly Dani, told IWPR, underlining that Halilovic was very much an outcast at the time the crimes in question took place.


“This will undoubtedly be the most interesting trial of a Bosnian officer so far.”


Two other Bosnian army officers, Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura, are currently standing trial in The Hague charged with crimes committed by men allegedly under their command – including foreign Islamic “mujahedin” fighters – in central Bosnia in 1993. Naser Oric, military leader of Srebrenica’s Muslims, is also on trial here for crimes his troops allegedly committed in and around that enclave in 1992 and 1993.


Michael Farquhar and Merdijana Sadovic are IWPR reporters in The Hague.