REGIONAL REPORT: Serbs Delay War Crimes Case

The Bosnian Serbs appear to be backtracking on plans to try several war crimes suspects.

REGIONAL REPORT: Serbs Delay War Crimes Case

The Bosnian Serbs appear to be backtracking on plans to try several war crimes suspects.

Saturday, 8 June, 2002

Police in the Serbian half of Bosnia have blocked war crimes trials, which had looked like opening up a promising new chapter in relations with The Hague tribunal. Their efforts seemed to have ensured that the trial of the so-called "Prijedor group" of five former policemen will be indefinitely delayed.

The arrest of the suspects on May 10 was seen as part of a drive by the Republica Srpska, RS, to improve its relations with The Hague and with the international community as a whole, opening up the way for much needed foreign aid. The tribunal agreed to allow the five suspects to be tried on RS territory, satisfied that the investigation into their case had been thorough and that the trial would be fair.

However, it seemed that Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic's need for western approval came a poor second with RS politicians who sought to present a staunch nationalistic front to voters in the Bosnian elections due in October.

Police obstruction of the Prijedor trial took the curious form of bringing a string of other charges against 10 serving policemen and 11 former officers - a move which legal experts say will delay the trial of the original suspects by at least a year.

The five arrested on May 10 were Miroslav Cadjo, Ranko Jakovljevic, Drazen Rakovic, all three active policemen, and Mile Rodic and Rade Savic, ex-members of the force.

The RS district public prosecutor had investigated them on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering a catholic priest Tomislav Matanovic and his parents in September 1995 in Prijedor. Matanovic had been held under house arrest by the RS police since August 1995.

In July last year, three corpses discovered in the village of Urije, near Prijedor were subsequently identified as the missing members of the Matanovic family. All had been shot dead at close range.

An investigation into the case lasted several months. According to representatives of the UN International Police Task Force, IPTF, the inquiry was conducted by the most qualified criminal inspectors of the RS interior ministry. It so impressed the tribunal that it gave a green light for the trial to be conducted by the local judiciary,

Then on May 24, Prijedor police chief Mirko Tufegdzija filed criminal charges against 21 former and serving officers who'd been involved in keeping the Matanovic house under surveillance. They were accused of robbery and destruction of Catholic church property in the Prijedor area. All of them are still at large.

The new charges will require months of testimony from witnesses who have already given evidence in hearings for the original five suspects. Then a request must be made to The Hague for new criminal proceedings, a process which normally takes seven or eight months.

Meanwhile, public opinion began to turn firmly against the trial of the policemen. The RS state broadcaster, RTRS, described both cases as "a witch hunt launched against the whole Serb people". There were protest rallies in Prijedor where families of the suspects demanded that the entire criminal proceedings be suspended.

Branka Tomic, the wife of Nebojsa Tomic, whose name is on the new suspect list, claimed that "our loved ones are innocent and they are now forced, without any good reason, to prove it themselves".

Ivanic's government consists not only of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, but hardliners from his own Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, as well. Deputy Prime Minister Petar Kunic, one of the most extreme PDP members, received the protesting families and voiced backing for their allegations that the cases were show trials.

Kunic demanded an inquiry into the manner in which the previous investigation had been conducted. Interior Minister Dragomir Jovicic, himself an experienced wartime policeman, declared that evidence had been extracted from suspects by coercion, even though his own men had been involved in questioning the suspects.

An inquiry into the original investigation was launched a week ago without any specific deadlines. Interior ministry spokesman, Zoran Glusac, said that the former should disclose whether the 26 suspected policemen were "responsible for taking away the Matanovic family or for something completely different".

Milorad Dodik, leader of the strongest opposition party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, said during his visit to the Prijedor suspects' families that "at issue was a show trial exploited by the government to ingratiate itself with the international community".

The UN has questioned the interior minister's decision to launch an investigation into the police handling of the two cases. It said the public prosecutor should not succumb to political pressure.

It is clear that despite Ivanic's willingness to hold war crimes trials in this Bosnian entity, his close associates, above all, senior police officials, are not prepared to follow suit.

Gordana Katana is Banja Luka correspondent of Sarajevo daily Avaz.

Support our journalists