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Regional Report: Bosnia: Death Squad Trial

Sarajevo hopes case will show it has the legal machinery to conduct war crimes trials.
By Amra Kebo

On a cold day last month a former Serb policeman Tomo Mihajlovic wandered into the office of a judge in the town of Zenica and told him, “I have come to wash the mud from my name.”


So ended a two-year hunt for the former policeman, nicknamed Kuka, indicted in 2000 for being a member of a Bosnian Serb death squad.


The hunt began on May 18, 2000, when Kuka was indicted by the Zenica cantonal court for a string of crimes.


He is accused of being a member of a death squad that went on raids against Muslims during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia in 1992.


In June of that year he is accused of raiding the village of Irice, along with units of the Yugoslav army and the Red Berets, an elite interior ministry force from Belgrade.


The charges say the squad hunted for weapons, beat unarmed villagers, and then Kuka loaded eight men into a red vehicle and drove off. The men have never been found.


A few days later, the squad hit Teslic, blocking the town and again searching for weapons. This time, Kuka is accused of rounding up a family of five, including three children, and taking them away. As with the men from Irice, they have never been seen again.


Finally, he is accused of an attack on two villages, Bardaci and Gomjenica, where 40 local men were rounded up. He separated seven men from the group and drove them away: these men have been missing ever since.


Later, Kuka is accused of becoming a guard at Teslic concentration camp, where he beat two prisoners to death. Finally, he is charged with two rapes. One woman was raped in Teslic police station, the other at her home in the town.


Bosnians see the case, which will involve a total of 24 witnesses, as further proof that they have the legal machinery to hold their own war crimes trials.


Kuka continued to live in Teslic after the war: the indictment was sent to his house two years ago - but he had disappeared.


In November 2000, Judge Mladen Veseljak issued an arrest warrant – but a search failed to find him. Last November, its patience exhausted, the court decided to try Kuka in absentia.


But in January, soon after the trial started, news came that he had been found – and in fact was living again back in Teslic. Judge Veseljak then stopped the trial – and alerted SFOR and other forces.


“This was a question of principle. Why try someone in absentia who is just 70 kilometres from Zenica,” Veseljak said.


The trial was stopped in January, while SFOR and other Bosnian security forces were asked to go after Kuka.


But before they could arrest him, he turned himself in – seeking out the surprised judge in his office.


“I think he realized that he would be arrested and felt that by surrendering he would possibly score some points,” said Veseljak.


The indictment accuses Kuka of committing his crimes while a member of the police reserve of the Serbian Internal Affairs Ministry, MUP.


Kuka denies all charges. He says he was at the sites mentioned in the charges because he was mobilised into the MUP reserve police on May 8, 1992 and remained in the unit until August that year.


He insists he went to Irice to take part in a normal weapons search. “We did not enter any house violently and we stayed in the village for around three hours,” he told the court. “My group, 3-4 of us, searched some 10 houses on the left side of the village and I didn’t abuse anyone. I don’t know that anyone was taken away with us that day.”


He also denied any involvement in the surrounding of the villages of Gomjenica and Bardaci and the removal of 40 civilians or the rapes. “I am not guilty, unless guilt is the fact that I am Serb and that I was a member of the police reserve,” he said.


Two witnesses have said they did not see him in one of the attacks, but others have said he was involved.


Witness Mujo Kahrimanovic said Kuka beat him and Hasan Mesinovic with a baton in June 1992. They were then taken to Teslic police station and the torture continued, “They ordered us to turn towards the wall and lean on it with three fingers. They hit us on the back and shoulders,” Kahrimanovic said.


He told the court that Mihajlovic then ordered them to sing a Serb nationalist song – with all the other prisoners ordered to join in.


The first of two rape victims also identified him as her attacker.


It has proved to be an emotional trial, after witness Memija Sacirovic described how her husband and three sons had been taken away and killed. She became so upset that the trial was stopped and she was given sedatives.


Sacirovic told the court about the disappearance of her husband, Salih, and three sons. She said another victim, Mujo Tolo, returned from a Serb camp to say that Kuka had killed her husband and sons. Tolo died 20 days after his release.


“I would ask him to tell me where he took 12 people, including my son and my husband,” said Sacirovic. “I got a few bones from two sons from the Beba (a mass grave on the slopes of Mt Borja, outside Teslic). For years, I have searched for my own and never found them”.


The case continues.


Amra Kebo is a commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


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