REGIONAL REPORT: Abdic Detained in Croatia

Croatia's arrest of a Bosnian Muslim leader suspected of war crimes could improve relations between Zagreb and Sarajevo

REGIONAL REPORT: Abdic Detained in Croatia

Croatia's arrest of a Bosnian Muslim leader suspected of war crimes could improve relations between Zagreb and Sarajevo

Saturday, 16 June, 2001

A renegade Muslim leader has been arrested in Croatia on charges of war crimes committed against his own people during the Bosnian war, in a move which could help advance the cause of peace in the Balkans.

Police detained Fikret Abdic on June 7 in western Croatia, where he had been living a life of luxury, apparently immune to repeated extradition demands by the Bosnia's Federation. He was accused of siding with Serbs and hard line Croat nationalists during the war, and inflicting numerous atrocities on his fellow Muslims.

After the conflict, Abdic fled to Croatia where he enjoyed the protection of the fiercely nationalist President Franjo Tudjman and the hard line Croat Democratic Union, HDZ.

Tudjman made Abdic a Croatian citizen, which automatically rendered him safe from extradition. At his luxurious villa in Volosko, near Opatija, Abdic ran a lucrative private business which afforded him strong personal links with some of the former Croatian leaders.

But when Tudjman died and the HDZ was overthrown last year, Abdic became vulnerable. His arrest signaled an intention by the new, more moderate Croatian government to reach out and mend fences with wartime enemies.

At the moment, it appears that Abdic will not be extradited to Bosnia but will instead go on trial in Croatia. The Bosnian-Croatian extradition debate is emphasised through another case, that of Ivan Andabak, who was accused of assassinating Bosnia's federal deputy minister of home affairs, Jozo Leutar, in March 1999. Andabak is being tried in absentia by the Sarajevo Cantonal Court.

Abdic used to be the director general of Agrokomerc, one of the biggest Bosnian companies before the war, employing much of western Bosnia. During the conflict, he set himself up as president of the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia and was allegedly implicated Serbian and Croatian war crimes.

Abdic also conspired with Tudjman and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to try and carve up Bosnia in ways that suited their mutual interests. In the presence of Tudjman, Abdic and Mate Boban signed a declaration on the division of Bosnia in Zagreb in 1993.

Backed by his party, the Democratic People's Community, DNZ, Abdic used his private army to besiege Bihac and other towns, effectively starving their inhabitants. His DNZ followers still consider him a hero, a 'father', for ensuring their survival by chosing to cooperate with Serbs and Croats.

DNZ vice-president Rifet Dolic said "many will have to pack their bags for The Hague if Fikret Abdic is put on trial". He referred primarily to Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's wartime president. Abdic was once a member of Izetbegovic's Party for Democratic Action but, convinced of the necessity to cooperate with the Serbs, he split to form the DNZ.

Following the departure of Tudjman and the HDZ, Croatia has been keen to improve its relationship with Bosnia. So far, however, no major progress has been made apart from mutual state visits. Croatian president Stipe Mesic said during his recent trip to Sarajevo that there were some 30 bilateral agreements now awaiting implementation.

Charges brought by a Bihac court against Abdic in 1996 were only recently passed on to judicial authorities in Croatia. According to the 2,000-page indictment, which was transferred through diplomatic channels, Abdic is wanted for crimes against Bosniaks between September 1993 and August 1995, in particular for imprisoning some 5000 men, women and children in camps around Velika Kladusa.

He is also charged with the indiscriminate shelling of civilian settlements around Velika Kladusa, Bihac and Bosanska Krupa, most notably in November 1994, when 124 civilians were killed and 345 wounded. Abdic is also accused of starving out the people of Bihac by blocking the arrival of food convoys.

"We are talking about a prosecution file weighing some 10 kg," said Hasan Muratovic, Bosnian ambassador to Croatia. The case was referred to the Rijeka Cantonal Court because it has jurisdiction over the district where Abdic was living.

Croatian prosecutor Drago Marincel said the case might have to be transferred to another cantonal court because of a heavy workload facing Rijeka. It provoked fears among Bosnians that Croatia might be backtracking on Abdic. But Marincel promised the indictment would go ahead.

The Abdic trial is sure to have a strong bearing on Croatia's relationship with Bosnia, but the new government in Zagreb will still have its work cut dealing with the damage done by the old HDZ regime.

Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Bosnia, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.

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