Witness Says Stanisic Supplied Croatia's Serbs With Weapons

He tells court that the paramilitary leaders Arkan and Medic saw former Serbian security chief Jovica Stanisic as their “boss”.

Witness Says Stanisic Supplied Croatia's Serbs With Weapons

He tells court that the paramilitary leaders Arkan and Medic saw former Serbian security chief Jovica Stanisic as their “boss”.

A former Serb official from the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar told judges at the Hague war crimes tribunal this week that Belgrade had an active role in organising and arming Serbs in Croatia on the eve of Croatia’s 1991-95 war.

Borivoje Savic, secretary of the Vukovar municipal board of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, testified as the prosecution’s second witness in the case against Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.

Stanisic, a former chief of the Serbian state security service, DB, and his deputy Simatovic, are charged with responsibility for planning and ordering the murder, deportation and persecution of non-Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia as part of a joint criminal enterprise with the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to create a Greater Serbia.

Both defendants deny all the charges against them.

According to the indictment, between April 1991 and December 1995 Stanisic and Simatovic helped to establish, supply with arms, and finance paramilitary groups which acted in close coordination with the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and the Serb Territorial Defence, TO, attacking towns and villages across Croatia and Bosnia and committing murder, rape and torture.

Savic’s evidence began in private session. Later in public session, the prosecution asked the witness about his knowledge of the distribution of weapons in the Vukovar area.

“[Were you] aware of any distribution of weapons, or arming of the Serb population [in 1990]?” the prosecution asked.

Savic confirmed that he was, saying “There had been talk of arming with weapons for some time by then.”

Asked by the prosecution to say who was responsible for the distribution of weapons locally in Vukovar, Savic said that the first time a weapon was offered to him, it was by Ilija Kojic, who he described as a local police officer.

At a meeting in Kojic’s Vukovar apartment in August 1990, Savic recalled being shown a room with several rifles lying on the floor, “I could see that [distributing weapons] was part of his activities.

“I asked him ‘where are these from’ and he told me that he had received weapons from Stanisic.”

Savic said he first learned of the arrival of armed units in the region of Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Srijem/Srem, SBWS - a self-declared Serb autonomous district on Croatian territory - in April 1991, when he encountered armed guards on a trip to Borovo Selo to meet Vukasin Soskocanin, president of the local SDS board.

“Who are the idiots standing at the entrance to the village?” Savic recalled asking Soskocanin.

The witness explained that Soskocanin had previously met Milosevic, who promised support, and with Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj who “was in charge of giving concrete assistance”.

“I asked [Soskocanin] if [the armed guards] had to do with Seselj’s assistance, and his response was ‘yes’,” Savic recalled.

During direct examination, Savic also recounted several encounters with paramilitary leaders commanding units in Croatia and Bosnia. On one occasion in May 1991, Savic said he was invited to a Belgrade café where he met Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, leader of the paramilitary group known as Arkan’s Tigers.

During the meeting, Savic said he asked Arkan to tell him who his boss was, because “everyone is working for somebody”.

Arkan’s response was “Jovica Stanisic”, Savic told the court.

In the spring of 1992, the witness was summoned to a meeting with Slobodan Medic, the leader of the paramilitary group known as the Scorpions.

Medic said that “he had been to see the boss the day before, and they talked about me”, recalled Savic.

“I asked him ‘who is your boss’ and he answered ‘Jovica Stanisic’,” Savic said.

Stanisic was absent from the courtroom for a second week, saying he was still not well enough to take part in the proceedings. Citing reports completed this week by Stanisic’s detention unit physician that the defendant was fit to attend, the trial chamber decided to proceed without him.

His defence is not contesting that officials in the Serbian government were involved in planning the Serb takeover of Croatian territory, but adamantly denies that it was carried out under the command of the DB, insisting that the JNA, TO, and Serb paramilitary forces were primarily responsible for organising and carrying out the campaign.

In cross-examination, Wayne Jordash, counsel for Stanisic, accused Savic of fabricating testimony about his meetings with Medic and Arkan.

“Can I suggest to you that you never had a conversation with Medic about Stanisic being his boss in the same way that you didn’t have it with Arkan?” Jordash said.

Savic maintained that his previous statements were true.

The defence then pointed out that there was no mention of Kojic receiving weapons from Stanisic in the first statement the witness gave to prosecution investigators.

“The first statement … was quite general. The topic wasn’t really known,” said Savic.

The defence also suggested that the weapons in the Vukovar area during the early 1990s originated from either retired police officers or the black market, but not Stanisic.

Jordash asked Savic about changes within the local police force around May 1990 when the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, came to power.

“All of the policemen who were Serbs were told to leave,” the witness said.

Jordash suggested that in some cases police officers leaving their jobs retained their weapons.

“I can’t be sure,” Savic replied.

The defence then asked Savic about the arming of the general public, asking whether it was true that “in the summer of 1990 arming was taking place through a black market in weapons?”

The witness confirmed the existence of a weapons black market but was unable to say where the weapons came from.

“Could I suggest to you that the weapons that you saw at the apartment of Kojic were obtained by him through that black market [and not from Stanisic]?” Jordash asked.

“You could … [but] there is no need for me to make up things,” Savic said.

On the issue of command and control of paramilitary forces, Jordash asked, “Am I correct that the reason that [Seselj’s volunteers] came into the [Vukovar] region was that the TOs in the region were making official requests directly to the SRS in Belgrade for volunteers?”

Savic said that he did not know the mechanisms that brought volunteers to the Vukovar area.

“On the 20th of November [1991] there were crimes committed by the JNA at the Vukovar hospital in collaboration with paramilitary groups, is that correct?” the defence inquired.

“Yes,” Savic replied.

“Throughout 1991, Seselj’s volunteers, when they came into the region, were attached to various TO [units] and various JNA commanders. Is that correct?” Jordash said.

“No,” Savic answered.

The defence also suggested to Savic that he had mistakenly identified several people as working for the DB, when in fact they were part of the public security department or the military intelligence service.

“Well, they didn’t differentiate between various services, how could I?” Savic said. “The services were intermingled all over the place. They didn’t know who worked for whom. They were all using each other as cover.”

The trial will continue next week.

Andrew W Maki is an IWPR contributor.
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists