Regional Report: Bijeljina Court Frees Suspect

SFOR swoops on man allegedly supporting indicted fugitives – but Bosnian Serb judiciary decides to let him go.

Regional Report: Bijeljina Court Frees Suspect

SFOR swoops on man allegedly supporting indicted fugitives – but Bosnian Serb judiciary decides to let him go.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Just days after SFOR troops conducted an unprecedented operation to detain a man who has allegedly been providing support to war crimes suspects, he was set free by a Bosnian Serb court which saw “no reason” to hold him in custody.


Dragan “Vaske” Vasiljevic, 30, was the driver and personal bodyguard of former Bosnian Serb interior ministry special forces commander Ljubomir Borovcanin, who is wanted by The Hague for his alleged involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.


Borovcanin - who is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of laws and customs of war - had originally agreed to turn himself over to the tribunal. He struck a deal with prosecutors last October, but apparently changed his mind and went on the run. He has not been seen since.


Paddy Ashdown, the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia, had announced in March that his office planned to crack down on anyone helping war crimes suspects avoid capture – and Vasiljevic was the first arrest.


Aside from being Borovcanin's driver and bodyguard, Vasiljevic is alleged to have connections to other fugitive war-crimes suspects, including Ratko Mladic, with whom he was often seen on television.


In the early hours of May 8, Italian SFOR troops surrounded Vasiljevic’s house in Bijeljina, smashed down the door and took him into custody. Before they moved in, the Carabinieri had slashed the tyres on his car to prevent his escape.


"SFOR carried out the operation in the area of Bijeljina, based on information that a certain house was being used by people supporting Ljubomir Borovcanin, who is indicted for war crimes," said SFOR spokesman Major Jeff Coverdale, who added that the NATO-led forces were assisted throughout by the Republika Srpska, RS, interior ministry police, MUP.


But even though the MUP had been involved in the arrest, Vasiljevic had not been formally charged with any offence. This posed a problem when he was brought before a RS court, as the only charge the authorities could level against him was the illegal possession of firearms - a relatively minor offence – as aiding and abetting war crimes suspects is not against the law in the Bosnian Serb entity.


Although SFOR expected the police to keep Vasiljevic in custody while it conducted an investigation into his links to war crimes suspects, a Bijeljina municipal court set him free.


The court initially ruled that Vasiljevic would be held in custody for a month, but the suspect appealed the decision and, 24 hours later, the court reversed its initial decision and let him go, saying the charges of illegal weapons possession did not merit detention.


The president of Bijeljina’s municipal court, Dragomir Zivanovic, said that there was no risk of Vasiljevic absconding, as he did not have passport, and had a family and steady job in town.


Ashdown’s office has not yet commented on the release, but Bijeljina prosecutor Vinko Lazic was quoted by Reuters saying that it was “scandalous” and represented “a severe blow to the Serb republic’s judiciary”.


Vasiljevic worked as a police officer in Bijeljina after the war, but was thrown out of the police force last year after he fell under suspicion of smuggling stolen cars and having involvement in trafficking.


Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


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