Regional Report: Milosevic Lieutenants Hague Bound?

There are signs that Serbia is set to send key Milosevic henchmen to The Hague.

Regional Report: Milosevic Lieutenants Hague Bound?

There are signs that Serbia is set to send key Milosevic henchmen to The Hague.

Serbia said this week two former Milosevic henchmen, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, will be extradited to The Hague – if a request is made.

They were among some 1,000 people arrested in a massive police operation launched following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

Djindjic’s successor, Zoran Zivkovic, said a previous policy of refusing to hand over key suspects would end as Belgrade seeks to better relations with the West.

Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic made it clear that if The Hague sought them, Stanisic and Simatovic would be extradited - even though both men may be charged with Djindjic’s murder.

“They are now being tried concerning organised crime and the assassination,” said Svilanovic. “If an indictment is brought against them and after the changes to the law of cooperation with The Hague tribunal, we will surely extradite them.”

Stanisic and Simatovic - former secret police chief and ex-commander of the elite Red Berets interior ministry commando unit respectively – are alleged to be part of a conspiracy, which included Milosevic, to commit war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

But Belgrade’s statement begs the question – are indictments imminent?

It seems unlikely that the tribunal has issued sealed – or confidential – indictments: if it had, the two men would surely have been flown to the Netherlands already.

Their names have frequently cropped up in prosecution evidence against Milosevic.

Stanisic is often named as a link between the former Yugoslav president and war crimes carried out by secret service and paramilitary units in Bosnia.

And Simatovic is named as a prime mover in the process, being involved in Croatia and Bosnia, for much of the time as a commander of the Red Berets.

Hague tribunal prosecutors are refusing to comment on what indictments may or may not be issued.

Stanisic rose to prominence in the early Nineties, when Milosevic tasked him with purging the army’s ranks of opposition to the Serbian nationalist project.

He formed the Red Berets to give Milosevic a loyal fighting unit outside the control of the army – whose generals Milosevic never fully trusted.

Stanisic’s stock rose rapidly as the war got underway.

For a brief period, with Serb forces controlling roughly one-third of Croatia and four-fifths of Bosnia, Serbs looked upon Stanisic’s men as heroes and patriots.

Anyone who suggested that they had committed war crimes was denounced as a traitor.

Indeed, Stanisic is also believed to have been tasked by Milosevic with muzzling political figures who criticised his tactics - in this way weakening the opposition.

The day-to-day running of the Red Berets was the job of Simatovic, an ethnic-Croat commander.

Despite his ethnicity, he flourished in the role of Red Beret chief, admired for his ruthlessness and feared for his closeness to Stanisic.

Hague prosecutors say that under Simatovic, the unit played a key role in arming Serbs outside Serbia.

Simatovic is thought to have personally chosen a former mercenary, Dragan Vasiljkovic, to train rebel Serb forces in the Krajina region of Croatia in guerrilla warfare.

Vasiljkovic, known as Captain Dragan, was a former French Foreign Legionnaire who learnt his trade fighting in Angola and Tanzania.

His position in the Krajina Serb command was meant to ensure rebel troops followed Milosevic’s orders, and in particular did not fire surface-to-surface missiles at Zagreb – at least, not without Belgrade’s permission.

Stanisic’s big moment on the international stage was in June 1995, when he negotiated the release of 150 UN peacekeepers held hostage by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

After his intervention, the blue helmets were brought to Serbia and released amid much fanfare, with the international media lavishing praise upon him.

Stanisic was more modest, saying only that the Bosnian Serb republic had accepted Milosevic’s appeal for the peacekeepers’ release “as a sign of its readiness to progress towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis”.

In fact, prosecutors think that Stanisic’s intervention showed that Milosevic pulled the strings in Bosnia – and was thus responsible for many war crimes committed there.

A few days after the hostage crisis, Karadzic was quoted as saying, “I could not say no to Jovica.”

The mid-Nineties were the apex of Stanisic’s influence.

He left the secret service in 1998, at a time when Milosevic’s wife, Mira, had growing influence over state affairs and street protests were erupting against his rule.

Simatovic did the same, retiring from office ostensibly to devote himself to the world of business and commerce.

Stanisic was no longer in the public eye when Milosevic launched his campaign in Kosovo in early 1998.

However, he is still credited in the media with many behind-the-scenes decisions during the Kosovo war.

For instance, he is thought to have masterminded the policy of letting convicts supplement the ranks of the armed forces.

In exchange for fighting, the men won a pardon, and better still – plunder.

When Milosevic was ousted in October 2000, the Red Berets stood aside – some suspect that those about to take power assured them that they would not be charged with any crimes they’d committed in the past.

But in November 2001, the unit organised a show-of-force against Djindjic’s government, apparently annoyed that secret police chief Goran Petrovic wanted to solve Milosevic-era political killings.

Petrovic was dismissed from his post after several hundred Red Berets turned up in Belgrade to stage a protest that looked like the trial run for a coup d’etat.

Some journalists in Belgrade suspect that Stanisic engineered the Red Beret rebellion and Petrovic’s dismissal.

After he left office, the French journal Poan wrote that Stanisic had a “reliable life insurance”, suggesting that if he ever felt threatened he could always reveal all that his boss is suspected of.

Much has now changed, but Belgrade is waiting to see whether that “insurance policy” can still be cashed.

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an IWPR contributor.

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