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Yugoslav Army Units "Commended" Serb Paramilitaries

Expert witness says military “tolerated” excesses by irregular forces.
By Velma Šarić
  • Prosecution witness Reynaud Theunens. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Reynaud Theunens. (Photo: ICTY)

A military expert testified this week about the rise of Serb nationalist paramilitary units in the former Yugoslavia as the region descended into war in the early 1990s.

Prosecution witness Reynaud Theunens, testifying in the trial of Croatian Serb political leader Goran Hadzic, told the court that prior to Balkan conflicts, the pre-war Yugoslav People’s Army or JNA "initially considered itself as a guardian of the brotherhood and unity principle” which shaped communist Yugoslavia under Josip Tito.

However, at a certain point, “it had become pretty clear that... the JNA had started accepting volunteers driven by another ideology, Serbian nationalists keen to realise their nationalist goals,” said Theunens, who authored an expert report for the prosecution.

As Yugoslavia broke apart, the JNA was joined by a number of paramilitary units “of Serbian provenance”, including ones led by Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan, and Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj, who is awaiting judgement on war crimes charges at the tribunal.

These groups, the witness said, were under the auspices of Serbia’s State Security service, known as the DB.

Former DB head Jovica Stanisic has been tried at the Hague tribunal alongside his former subordinate Franko Simatovic. Both men were accused of covertly establishing, organising and financing training centres for paramilitary units and other forces from Serbia, which were deployed in parts of Croatia and Bosnia to forcibly remove non-Serb civilians. A judgement in that case has yet to be delivered.

“All these units came to Serbia, and the authorities – both civilian and military – were aware of their presence and had tolerated it, to say the least,” Theunens said.

He quoted a report by a local JNA command stating that the only "true motive of these units is to plunder and terrorise the local population".

"Despite that, however, local JNA units were keen to commend the work of the paramilitaries on the ground,” Theunens said. He quoted Andrija Biorcevic, the commander of the JNA’s Novi Sad Corps, based in Serbia, who "commended the contribution" made by Arkan's troops.

Arkan, who is mentioned as a member of the joint criminal enterprise in the indictment against Hadzic, died in 2000 when he was gunned down in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel.

"The JNA authorities in command were aware of illegal behaviour going on, especially plundering; such behaviour was explicitly tolerated,"Theunens said.

During the war in Croatia in the early 1990s, defendant Hadzic held senior political positions in the Serb-held parts of that country. He was head of the government in the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, known as SAO SBWS; and was president of the so-called Republic of the Serbian Krajina or RSK – which absorbed SAO SBWS territory – from February 1992 to December 1993.

Hadzic is alleged to have been part of a “joint criminal enterprise” with other political and military officials, whose purpose was the “permanent forcible removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from approximately one-third of the territory of the Republic of Croatia” in order to create a Serb-dominated state.

He is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Croat and non-Serb population, including persecutions, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.

Theunens devoted part of his research to the massacre at Ovcara farm in November 1991, where some 200 men of Croat ethnicity were murdered by members of the local Territorial Defence after JNA protection had been withdrawn.

"This Territorial Defence was later to become a key part of the RSK army which was formed afterwards," Theunens explained.

He added that under the laws of the RSK, the president – in this case the accused – was "supreme commander and allowed to command the units in times of war and peace”.

"Hadzic was apparently the most senior political representative of the RSK and... had the most influence and possibility to do something in relation to the behaviour of the RSK armed forces,” Theunens said.

This, he added, was illustrated in a letter sent to Hadzic by the then commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force, Lars-Erik Wahlgren, who asked the accused to use his command authority to stop RSK forces shelling civilians in Croatia.

Theunens will be cross examined by Hadzic’s defence next week.

Hadzic was arrested in Serbia in 2011 after seven years on the run and was the last remaining Hague fugitive.

Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.

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