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

REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnia: Suspect Seeks Government Post

Bosnian Federation shaken by war crimes suspect's request to be reinstated as minister.
By Amra Kebo

The ruling coalition in Bosnian Federation had been thrown into ferment over whether a war crimes suspect bailed by The Hague should be given his old government job back.


The dispute swirled round the head of Sefer Halilovic, a Bosnian Muslim accused of atrocities against the Croatian villages of Grabovica and Uzdol in 1993, when he was a commander in the Bosnian army.


The Hague war crimes tribunal sent Halilovic home on January 8 to prepare for his defence after the Federation government guaranteed his eventual return.


Soon after arriving in Sarajevo to rapturous acclaim, Halilovic said he wanted his old job back as minister for refugees and social affairs. He had held the post for a year before voluntarily surrendering to The Hague in September 2001.


Local officials all agreed that Halilovic had performed well in office. They said he did more to secure the return of refugees in 12 months than all other ministers had achieved in five years.


Following Halilovic's departure to The Hague, the then-president of the Federation, Karlo Filipovic, formally dismissed him from the ministerial post. But as soon as Halilovic returned, the party which he leads, the Bosnian Patriotic Party, BPS, decided to re-enter him as a candidate for this now-vacant position. The BPS belongs to the ruling moderate Alliance for Change and plays a pivotal role in government.


The Federation prime minister, Alija Behmen, who issued the guarantees for Halilovic, confirmed there were no legal obstacles to prevent him from returning to government.


To get back his job, Halilovic would have had to go through the entire procedure from nomination to confirmation by parliament. The BPS started using its political muscle to persuade the 11 other parties in the Alliance for Change to let their man back into office. BPS leaders knew that if they walked out of government the ruling coalition would probably fall apart.


In the ensuing debate, critics argued that employing war crimes suspects in government was politically immoral.


But Halilovic's lawyer, Faruk Balijagic, claimed that The Hague's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, had personally given Halilovic permission to resume his ministerial post. An independent check, however, indicated that Del Ponte did not explicitly approve his appointment but had merely said there was no ban against it.


In her reply to Balijagic, dated December 12 last year, the chief prosecutor said, "It is not within my competence to comment on whether your client can continue to hold the position of minister in the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina should the trial chamber decide to provisionally release him."


Croatian deputies in the Federation parliament and international officials strongly opposed Halilovic's return to office. The leader of the New Croatian Initiative, Kresimir Zubak, said it would be "counterproductive" in spite of the good job he did as a minister.


Bosnian state defence minister Mijo Anic, a Croat, said the same criteria should be applied to both Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) indicted by The Hague tribunal. He was referring to the case of Croatian general Rahim Ademi who was not allowed home by The Hague to prepare his defence.


Ivica Marinovic, head of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, in the Federation parliament, said anyone "charged with genocide against the Croatian population" should not be allowed back into office. Rifat Dolic from the Democratic People's Union, DNZ, agreed it was "not wise" for a person accused of war crimes to be reinstated.


The international community's High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, recommended that the Bosnian Federation government reject Halilovic's appointment. He declared, "It is not in line with European standards that a person suspected of war crimes should perform ministerial duties."


Petritsch warned that people who rely on the refugees ministry need to have confidence in this body. "A person indicted for war crimes cannot enjoy such confidence," he said


The Petritsch view was endorsed by other international organisations, including the OHR, SFOR, the UN Mission to Bosnia, OSCE and the UNHCR. They recommended Halilovic should not resume office until completion of his trial, which is due to begin at the end of June.


This did not deter political parties who supported Halilovic. The BPS continued to stress that it held a key place in the governing Federation coalition. The implication was that unless Halilovic were granted the post, the BPS might walk out of the administration. As the Alliance for Change leads by only a slight majority in the parliament, the loss of BPS deputies would be crucial.


After his initial application for the job, Halilovic himself refrained from further public comment. He said he would leave his party colleagues to pursue the matter.


After several days of debate, the Alliance for Change came up with a compromise that the new minister for refugees should come from the ranks of the BPS just so long as it wasn't Halilovic.


Independent observers said there should never have been any question of Halilovic's return to office. They said consideration should have been paid to victims of the atrocities attributed to Halilovic.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Sarajevo and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network. She is also editor of Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


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