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

Regional Report: UN Abduction Trial Adjourned

Prosecution winds up evidence in trial of Canadian Serb charged with abduction of UN soldiers.
By Alban Mitrushi

The trial of a Canadian Serb accused of the 1995 abductions of UN personnel in Bosnia was adjourned earlier this week, after the prosecution completed its case.


Nicholas Ribich, 28, who was born in Canada but is of Serbian descent, is accused of being part of a Bosnian Serb unit that seized Canadian soldiers working with the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR.


He is said to have abducted Canadian and Czech army captains, Patrick Rechner and Oldrich Zidlik respectively, from their office in Pale, capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic, on May 26, 1995.


The jury trial got underway in Ottawa on October 7, but was adjourned on Monday, following the presentation of prosecution evidence, until December 9.


Members of the UN peacekeeping contingent were allegedly taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs to deter NATO air strikes.


Rechner was shown in televised images, which were broadcasted on BBC and CNN at the time, tied to a lightning rod in the middle of an ammunition dump.


Ribich, who grew up in the suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta, left Canada in 1995, to join the Serb army in Bosnia.


He allegedly fought in the republic until the end of the war in 1995 and then moved to Germany. In 1999, while living there with his girlfriend, he was arrested at the request of Canada.


He was extradited to Canada the same year, and later in 1999 freed on 200,000 Canadian dollars bail.


Canada is home to large numbers of Serbs and Croats, many of whom arrived from the Balkans looking for a better life in the late Sixties and early Seventies. More turned up as refugees in the Nineties.


Hundreds of Canadian-born Serbs and Croats returned to fight during the Balkan wars, including Croatia’s late defence minister Gojko Susak.


The Ribich case is believed to be the first in which a Canadian citizen has been charged with hostage-taking outside the country.


The criminal code was amended more than a decade ago to allow for charges to be laid in Canada for such crimes. If convicted, Ribich may face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.


According to prosecutors, Ribich participated in the capture of the two UN officers and was picked - because of his English skills - to read out an ultimatum over the radio to UN headquarters.


The ultimatum he is alleged to have broadcast is, "This is a Bosnian Serb army soldier. The UN observers are at the site of the warehouse. Any more bombings, they will be the first to go. Understood?"


Zidlik appeared as a witness and recalled talking with Ribich at the time they first met, "I asked him what he was doing here," said Zidlik. "He said, ‘I have a good reason’. I said, ‘What’s the reason?’ He said, ‘I want to fight Muslims’."


Zidlik said Ribich had sent the radio message to the UN saying that they should stop air strikes or risk the lives of the observers.


He said that although he and the other officer were handcuffed after the Serb soldiers left, they managed to free themselves and would have run away if more air strikes had been launched.


Zidlik’s testimony also revealed disquiet over UN operations. He quoted his diary of the time, in which he questioned why the UN was bombing only Serb targets, making the organisation look biased in favour of the Bosnian Muslims.


He also criticised the decision to authorise air strikes around Pale without first evacuating UN observers.


Testimony also came from Martin Bell, a former BBC war correspondent who was based in Pale at the time of the air strikes.


He certified the authenticity of the videotapes showing the hostage taking, which he passed onto the BBC and which were late screened around the world.


The trial highlights what many regard as the crucial moment in the Bosnian war – the point at which the UN endured one of its worse humiliations, and which was followed by NATO’s decision to launch military action against the Serb forces.


The trial continues.


Alban Mitrushi is an IWPR contributor.