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Prosecutors Seek Life for Serb Security Chiefs

Two defendants ran Serb paramilitary units responsible for major abuses in Croatia and Bosnia, prosecution says.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

Prosecutors at the Hague tribunal this week asked judges to sentence former Serbian intelligence officials Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic to life in prison, arguing that it would be difficult to “imagine crimes of greater severity”.

“The crimes involved thousands of victims directly impacted,” prosecuting lawyer Dermot Groome said during closing remarks on January 29. “The crimes… have lasting consequences to this day [and] will continue to impact lives long after this chamber enters a judgement.” continued.

Jovica Stanisic was head of Serbia’s State Security agency, known as the DB, from 1991 to 1998. His co-accused and former subordinate, Franko Simatovic, led a special operations unit within the DB that was known as the Red Berets.

According to the indictment, Stanisic and Simatovic covertly established, organised and financed training centres for paramilitary units and other forces from Serbia which were then deployed in parts of Croatia and Bosnia to forcibly remove non-Serb civilians, engaging in murder and instilling terror in the process.

The two men are alleged to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise, JCE, with several other military, political and paramilitary leaders in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.

Among the paramilitary groups discussed at length during closing remarks were Arkan’s Tigers and the Scorpions. Both groups were allegedly controlled by the Serbian DB, and the defendants are charged with crimes that the two paramilitary forces carried out.

One of these crimes is the murder of six Bosniak men and boys who were captured after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995 and then transported to the village of Trnovo.

A videotape of the execution – filmed by the perpetrators themselves – caused outrage when it was broadcast on television across the region in 2005. In 2007, a Serbian court found four members of the Scorpions guilty of murder.

According to the tribunal prosecution, Stanisic and Simatovic “controlled” the Scorpions, and for each operation the group was “subordinated” to a member of the DB special ops unit.

Prosecutor Dermot Groome described how the son of one of the murdered men first saw the film of the executions while watching a news broadcast.

“As [the son] watched the tape, he had a sense that the man in the video was his father – the man begging his captors for water. It was a sense that was confirmed shortly afterward. He watched his very own father being murdered by the Scorpions,” Groome told the court. “Since that day, every time he sees something as commonplace as a glass of water, he is reminded of his father’s suffering.”

Arkan – the nickname of Zeljko Raznatovic – and his men were also “tools” of both the accused in order to “further the common criminal plan”, the prosecution said.

The prosecution spent much time discussing a September 1995 operation in Sanski Most, a town in northwestern Bosnia, where in the course of two days, Arkan’s force allegedly killed some 76 non-Serb civilians.

While the defence has contended that Arkan was in Sanski Most “at the behest of” Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb interior ministry, the prosecution maintains that “the evidence is clear that Stanisic and Simatovic were intimately involved in these operations”.

To prove this, the prosecution referred to diary entries from the wartime notebooks of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic. In one entry, dated September 29, 1995, Karadzic allegedly remarked to Mladic that “Jovica Stanisic is angry about something. He gave 300 of his men and the US is begrudging us for having advertised Arkan.”

According to the prosecution, “this reveals that Stanisic was responsible for sending personnel into the Sanski Most area, he was abreast of Arkan’s role and communicated with Karadzic about these issues… There can be no reasonable doubt about accused’s liability for [Arkan’s] crimes in Sanski Most.”

The prosecution contended that Simatovic ordered his Red Beret special ops unit into Bosanski Samac in Bosnia, and that “one unit member proudly asserted that taking the town took little more than half an hour”.

In the town of Doboj in northern Bosnia, “Red Berets worked with local forces to conduct a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing.”

Non-Serb prisoners were kept in “deplorable conditions” and “all the while, Red Berets drilled and trained outside the window”.

Both defence teams strongly challenged the prosecution’s claims and maintained that their clients were innocent.

“We say Mr Stanisic should be acquitted of all charges. He should walk out a free man without a stain on his reputation….The case against him is not even reasonable, let alone proven beyond reasonable doubt,” Stanisic’s lawyer Wayne Jordash said.

Jordash described his client as “proximate” to the events because of his role as chief of state security, and said the prosecution case “invites guilt by association and supposition”.

“Of course he was involved in the war. Of course he was not without influence. Of course he attended meetings with critical players. Of course he could not publicly express disagreement with government policy,” the lawyer continued.

Stanisic, he said, “has never been a nationalist or believed in the superiority of the Serbs” and “never believed in power for power’s sake”.

In fact, Stanisic tried to be a “voice of reason”, Jordash said. For example, he played a pivotal role in negotiating the release of United Nations staff held hostage in Bosnia in 1995, as well as taking part in talks on the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war later the same year.

“Despite the lay person’s belief that in times of horrific crimes, all of those in leadership positions must be responsible, the evidence shows it was possible… to swim against the tide and to help to ameliorate pain and suffering,” Jordash said.

Simatovic’s lawyer, Mihajlo Bakrac, rejected the prosecution claim that his client “armed some direct perpetrators and that material, logistical and intelligence support was provided by him to implement the JCE.”

“It’s unclear what specific influence Simatovic had in supplying that money or part of that money. What kind of decision did Simatovic make, whom did he consult? What is his role in decision making to provide assistance? There is no evidence of that. There is strong proof that Simatovic had no influence on any possible decisions and assistance to anyone,” Bakrac said.

He further said that “there is nothing to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused set up and integrated secret training camps, and ran them”.

“The prosecution failed to show what this integrated network of camps consists of. What is it? What is that structure of control or any other element that makes these camps integrated?” the lawyer said.

He also questioned the prosecution’s characterisation of Simatovic and Stanisic’s relationship as one of “cooperation and trust” and that this was “the most important relationship among JCE members” in the case.

“The prosecution does not explain the exact distinction that characterises an official relationship between the chief of service and an employee. Where and how did their relationship turn into a close one?”

The judges will deliver a verdict in due course.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.

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