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

Victims of Police Brutality Wait for Justice

While thousands claim they suffered at the hands of police violence in the 1990s, it seems few will ever see their abusers in court.
By Dzengis Buljukbas

Mustafa Dzigal will never forget the day in May 1994 when he was summoned to the police station in Novi Pazar for “questioning”.

The abuse started the moment he walked through the door, the seventy-three-year-old told IWPR.

“They wanted me to confess guilt to a crime I only heard about from them for the first time,” he said.

“First they beat me on the soles of my feet, my head and back and then they kicked me in the chest; they were swearing and abusing me. I fainted several times from the pain. But as soon as one group has finished hitting me, another group came along.”

Dzigal says his abuse lasted for 12 hours, non-stop, “I will remember room 25 of the Novi Pazar police station for as long as I live.”

His is one of many incidents involving alleged torture by the police in Novi Pazar during the Nineties.

Suljo Muratovic, now 70, told IWPR he had experienced a similar ordeal to Dzigal in 1994.

“They tied me to a radiator and held me like that for two days without food and water. About 15 of them started beating me with batons on my legs and arms,” he said.

“They kicked me and hit me with rifle butts on my shoulders. My flesh burst on my legs as a result and they broke three ribs.”

The accounts of Dzigal and Muratovic concerning police maltreatment are far from isolated and cannot be put down to cases of mistaken identity or unlucky encounters with a handful of “bad apples” among the police.

Thousands of people in the Sandzak region were detained without charge and physically abused during police custody under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, according to local human rights organisations.

Five years after the collapse of the Milosevic regime and the advent of a more democratic political system, they are still waiting for justice.

About 35 criminal charges alleging torture of Bosniaks have been filed in the Novi Pazar District Court so far.

In 2003, court proceedings started against the three policemen whose names occurred most regularly in victims’ accounts, namely, Radoslav Stefanovic, Milic Karlicic and Milo Nedic.

But while the public in Novi Pazar has shown great interest in the outcomes of this trial in particular, it may drag on for years.

The accused men regularly fail to appear for hearings at the Novi Pazar court.

Lead witnesses also often don’t turn up. Several live in rural areas that are snowbound in winter and have great difficulty reaching Novi Pazar. The next hearing is scheduled for February.

Two trials have already been completed, but only one reached a guilty verdict last February against three police officers.

The men were sentenced to five months' imprisonment each. As the public prosecutor was not satisfied with the length of the sentence, he has lodged an appeal.

The abuse of police detainees in Novi Pazar took place against a background of ethnic warfare raging throughout former Yugoslavia.

As conflict worsened between Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians, the tremors were felt also in Serbia’s ethnically mixed Sandzak region, with its sizeable Bosniak population.

The situation in Novi Pazar was particularly tense. The largest town in the region, its population is overwhelmingly Muslim and Bosniak, while the police were – and are – almost all Serb.

Serious human rights violations by the police in Sandzak have been well documented by a local NGO, the Sandzak Committee for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms.

A booklet produced by JUKOM, the Yugoslav Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights, and the Sandzak rights committee, entitled “Testimonies from Sandzak”, documents several thousand cases from 1992 until 2002.

Mehmed Hot, a lawyer from JUKOM and the Sandzak rights committee, representing the victims, says police officers “competed” to devise ever more brutal methods of torturing civilians, to extract confessions from detainees that they illegally possessed weapons.

“Doctors were forbidden to issue medical certificates to people who were beaten, so the injured have had a hard time providing evidence of the torture they went through,” he told IWPR.

“Over the past ten years not one officer has been punished, suspended or accused of either torture, forcible extraction of evidence or abuse of official powers,” he added. “But all the public prosecutors were well aware of it – it was a public secret.”

The local police station in Novi Pazar has refused to comment on the claims of widespread abuse. Despite several IWPR attempts to get a response, no one was willing to comment.

Semiha Kacar, head of the Sandzak rights committee, told IWPR that considerable work had been done to investigate and expose the perpetrators of these acts, through providing well documented analytical reports, which were submitted to the government and other local and international NGOs.

The committee wanted to see a “fair and just application of international criminal law with respect to those responsible for discrimination against citizens on religious, national or political grounds”, she said.

Leafing through the list of alleged torture victims, Kacar said several thousand people had undergone beatings and other forms of humiliation during so-called “informative interviews” in the Nineties.

Most of the cases were concentrated in the municipalities of Sjenica, Tutin, Novi Pazar, Prijepolje in Serbia and in the municipality of Rozaje, in Montenegro.

Two men had committed suicide after their interrogation, she said.

Kacar said the changes that had taken place since the democratic revolution in 2000 were largely “cosmetic” as far as they affected the police in Sandzak.

The Sandzak rights committee claims the number of people reporting brutal treatment at the hands of the police is, if anything, increasing, though this may be a result of people feeling more willing to speak out.

“The torture victims and their families have not yet lost the fear that a similar scenario [as the Milosevic era] might yet unfold again,” Kacar said.

For many people in Novi Pazar, stories about police torture are something they are reluctant to discuss outside the privacy of their own homes.

“It’s the devil's business,” muttered Begija Dazdarevic, 75, a pensioner. “It is no good playing games with the police.”

In the meantime, most of the men who have helped to destroy other people’s lives and families remain at liberty – their continued freedom an affront to feelings of their numerous victims.

Given the slow pace of the trials of police officers thus far, the odds on them ever having to face a judge, let alone a prison cell, look slim.

“I can’t bear looking any longer at those people, walking the streets freely,” said Fadil Ugljanin, 51, another alleged victim of police brutality in Novi Pazar. “If I need to, I will take my case to the international court in Strasbourg.”

Dzengis Buljukbas took part in an IWPR journalism training programme in Novi Pazar funded by the OSCE in Belgrade.