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

Keraterm Apology

Guard at notorious prison camp says he's sorry for suffering inflicted on inmates.
By Emir Suljagic

A former Bosnian Serb detention centre guard Predrag Banovic last week dramatically apologised for the crimes he committed, hoping his gesture would help promote reconciliation between Bosnia's divided communities.

"I curse my hands for inflicting evil on innocent people in any way," he told a sentencing hearing on September 4.

In June, Banovic pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity, the third detention camp guard to do so in recent months.

He will now wait for judges to decide whether to go with a prosecution recommendation for an eight-year sentence.

Previous hearings were told that the Bosnian Serb Keraterm detention camp in northwest Bosnia lacked food, water and toilets, but there was one facility the guards were proud to provide - a collection of iron bars, baseball bats and clubs that visitors could use to beat the prisoners.

The guards also invited passing Serbs to drop by and take pleasure in beating the mostly Muslim prisoners.

Banovic has admitted killing five prisoners and beating, together with other guards, 22 other inmates.

At his sentencing hearing, he took the court behind the wire for a look inside the mind of a camp guard.

He admitted conditions for prisoners were grim: there were few toilets, bad clothing and bedding, medical care and primitive food.

But far worse were the endless beatings. Besides baseball bats and police truncheons, cables - with iron balls attached - which were swung at the prisoners' bodies.

Any Serb could take part and visitors were welcomed to the camp to participate in the abuse, he said.

The beatings, he explained, generally took place in full view of other inmates and was meant to humiliate them.

Prosecutor Sureta Chana, who called for an eight year prison sentence for Banovic, said although the accused had been only a camp guard, a so-called "small fish", he still had to bear responsibility for what he had done.

"Criminal acts can not be perpetrated without people at low level ready to commit them," she said. Chana insisted that the international community cannot ignore people like Banovic, who chose to make life harder for hundreds of prisoners in Keraterm.

"He knew about systematic abuse of prisoners and had decided to back it," she said, before reading out the names of his victims to the court - saying these were the people for whom the trial was being held.

Banovic's Belgrade-based lawyer, Jovan Babic, argued that his client was never a convinced nationalist, but only a young and confused man who had fallen prey to Serb propaganda.

"The gravity and degree of the crime should be put in the context of aggressive propaganda, especially in Prijedor and Keraterm camp," he said.

Babic said that even Biljana Plavsic, a war-time vice president to Radovan Karadzic, had said in her statement before the tribunal that she had believed propaganda that cleansing Muslims and Croats was a matter of survival.

"If an educated Plavsic believed in it, then it was far easier for young, uneducated and emotionally immature Banovic to believe in it," he said.

Addressing the court, Banovic himself said that he had a turnabout in prison.

He said before he had arrived, he have believed the Hague detention centre was a place for "silent killing of the Serbs". Instead, during his time in the cells, he said he had "gathered the strength to face the truth and myself".

"I wish my sincere words are taken as a medicine for the wounds - towards healing and reconciliation in Prijedor, a return to what it was before the war," said Banovic.

Banovic - along with three other guards Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Fustar and Dusko Knezevic and the camp commander Zeljko Meakic - was charged with crimes against humanity and violations of laws or customs of war in 2001, for abuses at Keraterm.

He was arrested in Serbia in November 2001, together with his brother Nenad. And they both pleaded not guilty at their initial appearance on November 16, 2001.

In April 2002, the indictment against his brother Nenad was withdrawn for lack of evidence and he was released.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.