Serbia: Beara Arrest Puzzle

Belgrade wants the public to believe key Srebrenica suspect gave himself up – and the world to believe that it captured him.

Serbia: Beara Arrest Puzzle

Belgrade wants the public to believe key Srebrenica suspect gave himself up – and the world to believe that it captured him.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

Despite Belgrade’s claims, the appearance before the Hague tribunal of Ljubisa Beara, a key alleged participant in the Srebrenica genocide, is not the consequence of a typical voluntary surrender.

The indicted war criminal turned himself in only under the threat of imminent arrest, after the tribunal had passed on important information to the Serbian authorities.

The former Chief of Security of the Army of Republika Srpska, VRS, is charged with genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, in 1995.

Beara was transferred to The Hague on October 9 in the company of Serbia’s justice minister, Zoran Stojkovic. In his initial appearance before the tribunal on October 12 he refused to enter a plea but called on his wartime comrades to copy his surrender.

“I would like to appeal to my war comrades, who have been indicted and are currently on the run, to surrender voluntarily as soon as possible, to help relieve the burden weighing down our country,” Beara told the hearing.

While Belgrade has portrayed Beara’s appearance before the Hague court as a result of a voluntary surrender, Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte insists it followed an arrest.

The truth would appear to lie between these two positions. A source close to the Serbian government told IWPR that the authorities contacted Beara after receiving accurate information from Del Ponte on his whereabouts.

The same source said Beara then was faced with a choice between surrender, with state guarantees and protection for his family, or an arrest.

To show the government meant business, the police surrounded the house where Beara was staying, the source added. The suspect didn’t resist.

This information coincides with the explanation of Del Ponte on October 12 in Luxembourg at a session of the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC.

There, Del Ponte said she passed on information on Beara’s hideout to Belgrade during her early October visit to Serbia.

She said the Serbian police surrounded the house where Beara was hiding and called on him to surrender. She emphasised that this counted as an arrest, as the police were in front of the house and told him he had to be transferred to The Hague.

The issue is a sensitive one for the Serbian government, as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has built up his image on the back of the anti-Hague sentiment of most of the public. Kostunica, therefore, needs to present the Beara case as a routine voluntary surrender.

The government wants to maintain a reputation for opposing the arrest of war crime suspects and for supporting cooperation with the tribunal exclusively on the basis of voluntary surrender.

Such an approach aims to blunt a possible furore among the public, who remain hostile to the Hague court, as well as to send a message to other war crimes suspects that their best option is to turn themselves in.

The government has also shown it will assist war crime suspects, which may help them obtain temporary release from custody before their trials.

By insisting Beara surrendered voluntarily, many observers believe the government is trying to avoid accepting responsibility for arrests of suspects, which the international community continues to demand.

Srdjan Djuric, head of the Serbian government’s media bureau, commenting on Del Ponte’s claim, insisted that Beara had surrendered voluntarily after talking to Justice Minister Stojkovic.

“Despite certain claims that Beara did not surrender voluntarily but was arrested by the police, I would like to reiterate that Beara was neither detained nor arrested,” Djuric said.

“The Ministry of interior, MUP, was not involved in any of the operative stages of Beara’s voluntary surrender,” he added.

With respect to the international community, the Beara case was a last-minute opportunity for Belgrade to redeem itself after relations deteriorated over the failure to arrest Goran Hadzic. Hadzic managed to escape the police and hide in an unknown location immediately after Belgrade received his Hague indictment.

Aleksandar Radic, a political and military commentator, told IWPR there was a significant distinction between a voluntary surrender and a standard arrest, adding that if this were indeed an arrest, it would show the government feels committed to honouring its international obligations.

“Unfortunately, we have here … two [different] versions of reality being presented to the public,” Radic said. “The former version is intended for internal use while the latter is meant for the international community.”

Human rights NGOs in Serbia believe the efforts that Kostunica's government is making to redeem itself in the eyes of the international community do not mean his administration is fundamentally changing its stance over the tribunal.

Jelena Stevancevic and Jovan Nicic, of the Humaniarian Law Centre, in Belgrade, pointed out that more than a year had passed since indictments were revealed against four army and police generals for war crimes in Kosovo - and nothing had happened.

Bratislav Grubacic, a well-known political commentator, told IWPR he also did not expect new arrests of tribunal suspects, adding that the government expected them to surrender voluntarily.

Beara is thought to have been a key participant in the mass execution of some 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995. The international community believes his superior, General Ratko Mladic, also indicted for genocide and war crimes, is hiding on Serbian territory.

Belgrade denies this, though state officials until only a few days ago were also denying that Beara was hiding in Serbia.

Beara’s surrender message, addressed to his wartime comrades, is thought to have been aimed at Mladic. If so, it would dovetail with Belgrade’s expressed hope that indictees surrender voluntarily.

Most analysts, however, remain sceptical as to whether Mladic will heed the advice of his former chief of security.

Aleksandra Milenov, of the tribunal outreach office in Belgrade, pointed out in a statement for IWPR that several other key indictees remained at large. Some, such as generals Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic, live openly in Belgrade, without trying to hide.

“The responsibilities of the government are clear. They must arrest and hand over all the indicted war criminals. The tribunal is hopeful this will come to pass soon,” Milenov said.

Whether Beara was arrested or turned himself in may well have an affect on the trial chamber’s decision to release him from the Scheveningen detention unit before the beginning of his trial. The likelihood of the suspect returning for trial is an important factor in such decisions, as is the risk of him posing a threat to witnesses.

Daniel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor.

Support our journalists