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

Serb Officials' Trial May Shed Light on Start of War

Long-delayed Stanisic and Simatovic case could reveal how the Yugoslav conflict broke out.
By Aleksandar Roknić

The trial of two trusted aides of Serbia’s ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic, when it finally gets under way, may show how closely Belgrade was implicated in the war crimes of the 1990s.

Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic’s trial at the Hague tribunal has already been postponed twice this year, with the next start date scheduled for April 1, but experts hope it will help resolve some of the most important outstanding questions.

“The question is who started the war in former Yugoslavia,” said Aleksandar Radic, military analyst, adding that he hopes the trial will air facts relating to the 1990-1 period.

“At that time the spiral of war started. Stanisic and Simatovic can explain how it happened. Some evidence indicates that a parallel command structure existed on the Serbian side, outside the central institutions and legal authorities.”

The two men headed Serbia’s secret service, DB, and the special operation unit, JSO, in the 1990s. Prosecutors accuse them of establishing paramilitary groups to fight alongside ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. These groups - such as the Scorpions, the Red Berets, and Arkan’s Tigers - allegedly murdered, persecuted and expelled Bosniaks and Croats.

Dragoljub Todorovic, a lawyer for the Humanitarian Law Fund, FHP, told IWPR that the trial of Milosevic, who died in 2006 before a verdict could be given, had already seen footage of Simatovic describing how he formed special units and what battles they fought.

“They formed the Red berets, which had a role in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The Scorpions were also well known. The secret police was the founder of these paramilitary troops,” he said.

“I expect that the trial of Stanisic and Simatovic will expose their role in the Bosnian war and show that they were deeply involved. This trial is very important, because at Serbian war crimes trials the prosecutor has tried to prove that only private military formations and people who were not controlled were active in Bosnia and Croatia.”

This Belgrade lawyer added that prosecutors in the war crime trials held in Serbia consistently tried to exclude evidence connecting the Serbian secret service with the wars in former Yugoslavia.

He singled out the Scorpions, who are blamed for the execution of six Bosniak civilians in the Bosnian town of Trnovo in July 1995, as having been under direct police control. In fact, in March 1999, the unit was merged into the anti-terrorist arm of the Serbian interior ministry.

“In this Scorpions case there is evidence that they were in the Serbian secret police at the time,” said Todorovic.

Stanisic was the chief of the Serbian secret service from December 1991 to October 1998, with Simatovic as his deputy until he formed the JSO. Simatovic headed the latter until 1996.

As Simatovic said in the speech aired at Milosevic’s trial and filmed in May 1997, the JSO worked in total secret on Croatian and Bosnian territory. He said 47 members were killed in battle and 270 wounded in 50 locations, including those against Croatian police forces in Benkovac, Old Gospic, Plitvice, Glina and Kostajnica. They also set up 26 camps for training special police units for Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia.

The first time the public saw Stanisic was in June 1995, when Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the former leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, captured 400 United Nations soldiers to stop NATO bombing their positions.

As special representative of Milosevic, he managed to resolve the crisis peacefully. Six months later, the Bosnian peace agreement was signed in Dayton, Ohio, with Stanisic in the Serbian delegation.

According to prosecutors, these clues point to Stanisic being intimately connected with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but some analysts have their doubts.

A number of war crimes trials in The Hague have struggled to prove that Yugoslav security forces exercised direct control over Serbian paramilitary units operating outside Serbia.

“I don’t know if the prosecutor can prove a connection between the secret police and the battles. There was a lot of speculation about secret service interference, but we still don’t know in which way they did or did not support paramilitary units,” said Milan Antonijevic, executive director of the Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, JUKOM.

“It is necessary to prove whether the whole service was involved in this or just some powerful unofficial centres inside the service. We know now that Serbia had some part in the wars in former Yugoslavia and was very active in all periods of time, but this wasn’t demonstrated by the International Court of Justice‘s verdict in the case of Bosnia against Serbia.”

He was referring to Bosnia’s attempt to sue Serbia for genocide, which failed just over a year ago. The ICJ ruled that there was no evidence to suggest Serbia intentionally tried to liquidate the Bosniaks, and that the acts of genocide that did occur - above all in Srebrenica - were conducted by Bosnian Serbs, not Serbia itself.

Survivors and bereaved relatives will hope this latest trial will throw more light on the circumstances around their loss, but for now they will have to wait.

The medical report on Stanisic could not predict when he would be fit to attend court, and said he was suffering from deep depression, pouchitis, osteoporosis and kidney stones. They recommended that no further tests be carried out for now

That may mean the case is postponed once more when it reconvenes on April 1.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.