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Slovenes Indict Ex-JNA Commander

Former Yugoslav army colonel insists his men behaved correctly and only fired on legitimate Slovene military targets.
By Aleksandar Roknić

A state prosecutor in Slovenia has filed an indictment against a former colonel in the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, for crimes against civilians committed in this former Yugoslav republic in July 1991.

Berislav Popov, who was stationed in Varazdin in Croatia at the time, says neither he nor the men under his command did anything wrong.

“My unit didn’t do anything in the sense of war crimes, because no one was executed by shooting or hanged or arrested,” Popov told IWPR.

“We didn’t destroy anything in anger and we didn’t attack first. I didn’t do anything of my own volition, but obeyed army rules, principles and ethics. This action was based on [Yugoslav] federal government orders and military commands.”

After Slovenia declared independence on June 25, 1991, the JNA moved to retake control of border crossings.

“We came to help state border staff re-establish order at Yugoslav border crossings,” said Popov.

During clashes between the Slovenian Territorial Defence and the JNA which started on June 27, 44 Yugoslav army soldiers and 18 Slovenes were killed. Twelve foreign nationals were also killed in the conflict, mainly journalists and truck drivers who strayed into the line of fire.

Ten days later, Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia, concluded a peace deal with the Slovene government, and the JNA pulled out of the country.

This is not the first time Popov has found himself the subject of legal proceedings.

The District Court in Zagreb sentenced him in absentia to 15 years imprisonment for war crimes in Varazdin during the Croatian war that followed, along with his commanding officer General Vlado Trifunovic and Colonel Sreten Raduski.

The Belgrade Military Court also sentenced Popov, Trifunovic and Raduski to spells in prison for treason because they surrendered the JNA base in Varazdin, handing the Croatian army a substantial arsenal of weaponry and equipment. The three men were granted amnesty in January 1996.

The Hague tribunal has not sought to prosecute anyone for crimes committed during the ten-day campaign in Slovenia.

Prosecutor Zarko Bajek told the Belgrade daily Politika he was not optimistic that Popov would ever face trial, and therefore the district court had not issued an arrest warrant. He told the newspaper that he took over Popov’s case this year, after a colleague retired.

The Slovene group Helsinki Monitor agrees that Popov should not be brought to trial.

Neva Miklavcic Predan, the head of Helsinki Monitor, said the Slovene judiciary had been investigating for 17 years with no results. He believed that the case will ultimately be dropped.

“They are trying to create the impression that the JNA committed horrible war crimes in Slovenia, but this is not the truth,” she said.

“On the other hand, war crimes were committed against the JNA. In Rozica, several civilians were killed, but those civilians had been used by the Slovene Territorial Defence as a ‘live shield’. Even some foreign citizens, truck drivers and children were killed behind the barricades. Everything was covered up to show that the Territorial Defence was the victim,” she added.

All past cases against former JNA generals have been dropped because of lack of evidence, she said.

“Looking at the report by Slovene prosecutors… I concluded that the JNA didn’t commit war crimes. They described petrol station robberies and the theft of sandwiches,” she concluded.

Popov described how his motorised brigade, which had been dispatched to Slovenia from Varazdin, encountered barricades and “live shields” as it moved along the highway.

“On a bridge called Brotherhood and Unity there was huge truck with a Polish registration plate and lots of other vehicles being used as a barricade. I couldn’t allow them to stop me. When we had no other option, our tank opened fire on the truck,” he said.

“There was a big fire. We put it out and were ready to continue our march, which was meant to be top secret although everyone knew where we were going. In the village of Berzaj women, children and elderly people formed a ‘live shield’. We fired one burst of shots in the air and they ran. No one was injured.”

Between Berzaj and Radenci, Popov said, the troops broke through several similar barricades. Then they were ambushed, when people forming a “live shield” suddenly lay down on the ground, and Slovene forces fired over them at the JNA.

“Our officer Mustafa Hadziselimovic was killed then. Not one civilian was killed; I don’t know about the Territorial Defence members. The resistance was stronger as we moved closer to the state border. At the entrance to Gornja Radgona, there were train wagons full of heavy rocks on the tracks.”

A day later, he said, a peace deal was concluded with the Territorial Defence, but the Slovenes continued to attack at night.

“Then we shot at facilities they were using for military purposes. Of course we shot one sniper on a local church and several snipers who were in houses,” he said. “Were they civilians? And then they accused me of barbaric acts.”

After seven days, the unit returned to base in Varazdin with five dead, 17 injured and 30 captured. Some 20 military vehicles had been destroyed, Popov said.

Popov’s lawyer, Milan Stanic, complained that the Slovene prosecutor sent the indictment to his client’s home address rather than to the Serbian justice ministry.

“Also, the indictment was in Slovene, and I don’t know what crimes Popov was accused of,” Stanic told IWPR.

Bruno Vekaric, a spokesman for the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, said his office had not been informed of the indictment.

“Popov can’t be transferred to Slovenia because there is no provision for that in Serbian law or in any law in the region. But he could have problems if he tried to leave Serbia because the Slovene judiciary could ask for an international arrest warrant,” he told IWPR.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.

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