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

Tribunal Hears of Abuse at Banja Luka Police Station

Witness describes challenges in maintaining discipline in special units.
By Alexandra Arkin
  • Stojan Zupljanin in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Stojan Zupljanin in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

After a two-week break, the trial of former Bosnian Serb police officials Mico Stanisic and Stojan Zupljanin continued this week with the testimony of a protected witness who spoke about the abuse of non-Serb detainees at the Banja Luka police station in 1992.

However, he said those responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners were not members of the regular police, but military personnel.

Zupljanin, the former chief of the Regional Security Services Centre, CSB, in Banja Luka, north western Bosnia, and Stanisic, the former Bosnian Serb minister of internal affairs, are alleged to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise to permanently remove Bosniaks, Croats and other non-Serbs from the territory of an intended Serb state.

They are accused of crimes committed between April 1 and December 31, 1992, in 20 municipalities throughout Bosnia.

Witness SZ-002, who testified for the defence this week, was an officer in the state security service of Republika Srpska at the time of the indictment. For a few months, starting in May 1992, he was part of a special police detachment of the Banja Luka CSB.

This unit was made up of a platoon of police officers and two platoons of military personnel. According to the witness, the unit was disbanded in mid-July 1992, but its police officers and soldiers did not return to their normal units until August 10.

In the intervening time, the unit still technically existed, but was temporarily subordinated to combat military in the field.

“It reported to the military even while it was technically a police unit,” the witness said. “We only provided the salaries, and we also transferred a number of police officers to them.”

Witness SZ-002 told the court that in operations in which the special detachment was involved while it was under military control, a commander would issue orders to his unit and also to the police unit under his authority.

Zupljanin’s defence lawyer Dragan Krgovic asked the witness what authority the commander had in the event that any “irregularity” occurred during an operation.

“He could take disciplinary measures,” the witness replied. “That was [in his power]. All the orders of that military commander had to be obeyed. He’s the one who [was] responsible, and he [had] jurisdiction and powers to both commend and to punish.”

The witness’s job was to run checks on people accused of infractions, and to determine whether some form of disciplinary action was necessary. He said that most were minor violations, such as indiscipline, going AWOL and the like. In these cases, he said, discipline usually consisted of removing offenders from combat assignments and reassigning them to other units.

With more serious crimes, offenders were prosecuted, which the witness said happened in a few cases.

According to the witness, it was mainly members of the detachment’s military platoons who were responsible for crimes and infractions.

“These things happened mainly because those men were not trained policemen, and they thought they were allowed to do the same things policemen did, although they were a military unit,” he said.

When investigating special detachment members accused of crimes or disciplinary offences, the witness said he often found that the person responsible for the incident was not actually a member of the unit at all. He attributed this to the confusion caused by different units wearing similar-looking uniforms.

Witness SZ-002 described the occasional use of force against people brought in to the police station.

“Sometimes there were excessive situations, mostly in the hallway or in front of the police station, and when I witnessed that, I reacted,” he said.

The witness told the court that he did not know what happened later because he was not present during every “interview”, but said he sometimes heard detainees being beaten by security officers “over whom there was obviously insufficient control by their superiors”.

“The organisation was lacking,” he said. “They weren’t disciplined. They did what they wanted to do.”

The witness said he always behaved professionally. “Never during my career did I approve of the use of force, and I have never used force myself,” he said. “In the room where I worked, there was no physical mistreatment.”

When asked whether he was ever present when Bosniaks or Croats were abused, and whether he initiated such abuse, the witness repeated that he was “strenuously” against such treatment.

He told the court that paramilitaries would bring people to the police station and physically mistreat them in the corridors. The witness said he once took a victim of such abuse to get first aid.

When asked by Krgovic whether he reported the beatings to his superiors or any other commanding officers of the Territorial Defence force, the witness said he did mention such incidents, but his superiors already knew about them since they had been present when they occurred.

“Their story was that it was impossible to control these men who were armed and violent,” he said.

Asked whether he reported the incidents to Zupljanin, the witness said he kept the defendant posted on what went on, but dealt more with other officials who had authority over the military, since it was mainly soldiers who committed crimes and infractions.

According to the witness, in the months that the special detachment existed, there were never any issues with the conduct of the platoon made up of professional policemen.

“The very fact that none of the members of that platoon was ever taken off war assignments or thrown out shows that there were no such complaints,” he said.

During cross-examination, the witness told prosecutor Joanna Korner that he did not think he committed any criminal offences while he was with the Banja Luka special police, though some other members of that force did.

“Are you ashamed at all of your actions during the period that you were with the special police?” Korner asked.

“No,” the witness replied.

Korner questioned him about his communications with Zupljanin and his defence team. The witness said he and defence lawyer Krgovic had discussed whether he would testify for the defence, but denied that either the accused or his lawyers had asked him to shield Zupljanin from responsibility for the actions of the CSB special police.

Stanisic surrendered in March 2005, while Zupljanin was arrested by the Serbian authorities in June 2008, after 13 years as a fugitive. Both defendants – whose indictments were conjoined in September 2008 – have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The trial began in September 2009, and continues next week.

Alexandra Arkin is an IWPR intern in The Hague.