Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The trial of two Serbian former intelligence officials, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, continued this week with testimony from a former Dutch military observer who was held hostage by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.
The two accused 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 the persecution, murder and deportation of the Croat, Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat population.
Stanisic served as head of the Serbian State Security Service, DB, from 1991 to 1998, while Simatovic worked under Stanisic’s command as head of a special forces units known as the Red Berets.
The two defendants are also charged with forming and supporting units in Croatia and Bosnia, and with dispatching police and paramilitary forces from Serbia which took part in crimes against non-Serbs.
The witness, Marcus Helgers, is a former officer in the Netherlands air force who was among more than 400 United Nations peacekeepers taken hostage in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces, who wanted to prevent NATO bombing of their positions around Sarajevo.
This was not Helgers’s first testimony at the Hague tribunal. In January 2011, he testified for the prosecution in the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
At the outset of this week’s brief examination-in-chief, Stanisic's defence counsel Wayne Jordash asked the judges to enter into evidence the witness’s testimony from Karadzic’s trial, together with a statement Helgers gave to Hague investigators in August 1995, two months after he had been released by the Bosnian Serbs.
In these statements, Helgers described how, after their release, he and other hostages were taken by bus from Republika Srpska, RS, to the city of Novi Sad in Serbia, and then to Croatia.
This week, Helgers told the court that he was no longer in the Dutch military, and that “in 2001 [he was] diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder” due to his “experiences during the war in Bosnia”.
When Jordash asked the witness whether he knew Stanisic, Helgers replied that he remembered seeing him on the bus which was taking the hostages from RS to Serbia.
Stanisic “said that we were to thank [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic for the fact that we were freed,” Holgers said.
During the cross-examination of the witness by prosecutor Maxine Marcus, Helgers was asked what his impression was of Stanisic's role in the hostage release and his relationship with Bosnian Serb forces.
“I didn't pay much attention, to be honest,” he said. “I mostly felt happy for the fact that the situation was changing and that we were finally on a bus and on our way home.”
He said he got the impression that those who facilitated the release of hostages wanted to as much media attention as possible, and as a result he and other hostages had to attend several press conferences en route to Croatia via Serbia.
Helgers said he was stressed out by the theatrical effect of “how everything was staged in Serbia, how we were photographed by the media on multiple occasions, how everything felt heroic”.
He said he did not recall that Stanisic played a particularly significant role in the hostage release.
"He was there, and in a way it seemed that he was respected by the others, that he was in control, but I think I only had that impression because someone told me that he was the chief of the Milosevic intelligence forces, so it was kind of logical,” Helgers said.
He added that he did not observe any difference in behaviour, or any disagreement, between the Bosnian Serb forces and units that had come from Serbia. Individuals “who I remember to have been wearing red berets” accompanied Stanisic, the witness said.
“It seemed that there was no problem at all between them and the local guys. But they were speaking Serbian, so it was difficult to know what was really going on,” he added.
The two defendants were arrested by the authorities in Serbia in 2003. They have both pleaded not guilty.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
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