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REGIONAL REPORT: Strpci Case Stirs More Controversy

The authorities’ effective suspension of the investigation into the Strpci massacre looks as though it was prompted by a fear of offending nationalists.
By Marina Grihovic

The authorities have come under suspicion of trying to cover up war crimes after a judge presiding over the trial of one of the 20 paramilitaries implicated in the notorious Strpci train hijacking said there were no plans to prosecute the defendant’s accomplices.


The Serbian and Montenegrin authorities seem to be concerned that further trials of suspects in the case may alienate nationalist voters in advance of crucial elections in both republics.


Lawyers say the previous authorities dragged their heals over prosecutions because they feared that they would provide evidence of their complicity in the crime.


The new claims of a cover-up have been made in the wake of the conviction of Nebojsa Ranisavljevic on September 9 for his part in the killing of 19 non-Serb passengers of a Belgrade train bound for the Montenegrin coast nearly a decade ago, at the height of the Bosnian war. A court in the Montenegrin town of Bijelo Polje sentenced Ranisavljevic to 15 years in prison.


On February 27, 1993 around 20 armed men boarded the train and demanded to see passengers’ identification documents. Those who did not have Serb surnames - 18 Muslims and one Croat - were taken off the train at Strpci – a small station just across the border in Republika Srpska, RS - then robbed, murdered and thrown into the Drina River.


The paramilitaries had apparently planned to exchange the passengers for Serb prisoners held by Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslims.


The then authorities showed a marked reluctance to investigate the crime, fueling suspicion that they had something to hide.


They arrested suspected gang leader Milan Lukic in 1994, but after several deferred hearings he was deported to RS, where he was hailed a hero and now lives a secluded life in the town of Visegrad, according to IWPR sources. Ranisavljevic was not arrested for three years, and it took a further two years to bring him to trial - which lasted four years.


During the Ranisavljevic trial in the Montenegrin town of Bijelo Polje, the court was told that former Belgrade leaders were warned by railway security that such a crime was being planned, but chose to ignore it. There were also claims that they ordered railway officials to erase key information, such as the fact that the train had stopped at Strpci, the name of the guard in the coach from which passengers were kidnapped and the name of the driver.


Savo Popovic, a lawyer who monitored the Ranisavljevic trial on behalf of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said all this pointed to the former authorities’ complicity in the crime. “How else can you explain the fact that they arrested Lukic in Serbia and then released him. Moreover, if they’d really wanted to, they could have detained other suspects because at the time of the crime the Serbian secret services exercised a good deal of influence over the Bosnian Serbs and could have got hold of them then.”


After the Ranisavljevic trial, the presiding judge Vukoman Golubovic hinted very strongly that the defendant’s accomplices would not face prosecution, "I have no information on charges against any other people."


His remarks have prompted suspicions that the new authorites are just as reluctant as their predecessors to persevere with the investigation.


The official line is that more trials are unlikely because all the suspects are currently living RS and there were no signs that the authorities there were prepared to hand them over.


But some observers believe this is just a pretext for shelving the inquiry, arguing that the real reason is that there’s no political will to act. Crucial elections are expected in both republics, and domestic trials of alleged Serb war criminals are deeply unpopular, as nationalists see them as heroes rather villains.


Indeed, the theory is supported by a Serbian government official who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity. "Ranisavljevic got what he deserved, which should have happened to all the others who were responsible. But neither we nor officials in Montenegro want to offend nationalist groups before the elections,” he said.


Marina Grihovic is a freelance journalist in Belgrade.


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