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

Perisic Pleads Not Guilty

Trial of former Serb army chief of staff may have great implications for other war crimes cases in The Hague.
By IWPR ICTY

Former Yugoslav army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him at the start of a case that many believe will be one of the most significant to be heard in The Hague.


Perisic - who served as the Yugoslav army chief of staff throughout the wars in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia in the Nineties - is accused of secretly providing aid to the Serb-run armies there, in full knowledge of the crimes they were committing.


This aid, the indictment alleges, was hidden from the Yugoslav and international public, but was given with the full knowledge and approval of the country’s ruling elite.


Speaking through a duty lawyer on March 9, the sharply dressed 60-year-old defendant announced that he intends to ask former Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic to be his defence counsel, and also to ask the tribunal to grant him provisional release.


One highly placed tribunal insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that that indictment against Perisic was among the “most significant… in explaining Belgrade’s involvement in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia”.


Observers expect the trial to have far-reaching consequences – perhaps even influencing a separate legal case brought by Bosnia in the International Court of Justice, ICJ, in The Hague.


The charges cover three specific episodes in the Bosnian and Croatian wars and allege that those responsible were secretly on the Yugoslav army’s payroll, and that Perisic helped them or, at best, failed to punish them.


The charges cover the shelling of civilian targets in Croatia by Serb forces in May 1995; the three-year long shelling campaign against Sarajevo and finally the massacre of some 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after the fall of the Srebrenica in July 1995.


Although the Srebrenica massacres constitute the first legally proven case of genocide in the Bosnian war, Perisic is not charged with this crime, but instead with 13 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of laws and customs of war.


Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was also accused of orchestrating the wars in Bosnia and Croatia – something he repeatedly denies, claiming any aid he gave to Serbs there was of a “humanitarian” nature.


Perisic was a close ally of Milosevic at the time, and is assumed to have been one of the key figures facilitating the military implementation of his policies.


The indictment against Perisic appears to rely to a large extent on evidence already heard in the Milosevic case. It draws heavily on the vast archives of the Yugoslav main commanding body, the Supreme Defence Council. The Belgrade government reluctantly handed this archive over to the Hague tribunal in 2003, demanding that the bulk of it should remain under protective measures.


But the uniqueness of the case against Perisic lies in its narrow focus, according to Bogdan Ivanisevic, head of Human Rights Watch in Belgrade and a seasoned Hague tribunal observer.


“This is the first and likely the only indictment to specifically target the nature and the degree of the Belgrade government’s military involvement in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia,” he said.


The prosecution alleges that throughout the wars of the Nineties, the Belgrade government used Yugoslav army infrastructure to supply Serb troops in Bosnia and Croatia with weapons, ammunition, food, uniforms and fuel.


Equally importantly, it is alleged that the Yugoslav army kept many officers of those armies on its payroll, and seconded some of its own officers to them.


The three armies appear to have had integrated budgets – to the extent that prosecutors allege a joint balance sheet was maintained for all the materials they used.


This close cooperation was conducted through two major sections of the Yugoslav army’s General Staff, with the 30th personnel centre providing for Bosnian Serb army officers, and the 40th personnel centre catering for those serving in the Croatian Serb military.


These centres were established by the accused personally in November 1993, the prosecution alleges, and were designed to “disguise the provision and payment” of those officers.


They included many of the high ranking Serb militaries who have already been indicted by the Hague tribunal – including the former Bosnian Serb army commander-in-chief Ratko Mladic, accused inter alia of genocide at Srebrenica.


It is claimed that Perisic not only established and ran these centres but also persuaded hesitant Yugoslav army officers to serve in Bosnia and Croatia, coerced the unwilling, and promoted those he found deserving, according to the indictment.


The prosecutors are now asking that Perisic be held responsible for the crimes committed by the officers on the payrolls of these personnel centres.


Although the officers seconded to either Croatia or Bosnia were put under operational command of the local army chiefs there, the prosecutors claim Perisic was ultimately still in charge – controlling their finances, logistics and supplies, and having the ultimate power to promote or demote them and to order investigations into any allegations of wrongdoing.


The three episodes singled out in the indictment have one thing in common – they were all so well known that the accused may find it difficult to deny that he had knowledge of them at the time.


In Bosnia, the Serb officers and members of the 30th personnel centre were engaged in the campaign to shell Sarajevo. In addition, Perisic is accused of further assisting the siege by deploying regular Yugoslav army troops for the operation dubbed “Pancir-2” that ran between December 1993 and February 1994. He has been charged with murder, inhumane acts and attacks on civilians in connection with these events.


Further charges of murder, inhumane acts, persecutions and extermination have been lodged against Perisic in connection with the Srebrenica massacre.


These crimes were allegedly planned and committed by the members of the 30th personnel centre - but here Perisic is accused of more involvement than just paying the salaries of the killers, or providing them with the weapons and ammunition used in the massacre.


The prosecutors allege that, in the months preceding the massacre, Perisic provided covert training to the members of the unit that later carried out many of the extrajudicial executions – the Bosnian Serb Army’s 10th Sabotage Detachment.


The indictment also claims that Perisic permitted officers of the Yugoslav army’s Uzice corps to assist in the planning and preparation of the assault on Srebrenica – but stops short of saying that they planned the actual killings.


The third section of the indictment relates to Croatia, where the head of the local Serb army forces – and a member of the 40th personnel centre of the Yugoslav army -- ordered the shelling of three urban areas, including the capital Zagreb, in retaliation for attacks on Serb-controlled territories.


Two people died and 48 were wounded when cluster bombs fired by the Serb troops hit the commercial centre of Zagreb. For this episode, Perisic is accused of murder, inhumane acts and attacks on civilians.


While the case against Perisic is bound to shed more light on the military connections between the various Serb armies, analysts agree that its consequences may extend beyond the Hague tribunal - affecting a separate case that the Bosnian government has initiated against Belgrade at the ICJ.


The Sarajevo government has charged the rump state of Yugoslavia with genocide committed in the course of the Bosnian war. The case is scheduled to be heard in around 12 months’ time.


If the prosecution manages to prove the charges against Perisic, the Bosnian government hopes that the genocide case against Belgrade will be additionally strengthened.


“With every new highly placed Belgrade official accused of involvement in the Bosnian war, our case gets a boost,” said one Bosnian government official, who asked not to be named.


“And it can’t go higher than this - first we had the political and now the top military leader in the dock.”


However, for the case against Perisic to have an influence on Sarajevo’s upcoming case, the evidence against the Serb officer will have to be made public. The ICJ works on the basis of evidence presented by the two sides and cannot ask for any additional documents – least of all, those that are under the Hague tribunal’s protective measures.


“There are still too many protected documents and witnesses to provide the full picture of Yugoslav involvement,” the diplomat said.


“That’s why every shred of new public evidence in this case will be important.”


Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague.