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

Zupljanin Arrest Revelation

Following seizure of ex-Bosnian Serb security chief, police sources suggest they were also on the trail of another war crimes indictee.
By Aleksandar Roknić

The Hague indictee Stojan Zupljanin was arrested this week in Pancevo, a town near Belgrade, after two months of surveillance, with a police source hinting that the operation could have led to the arrest of a second tribunal fugitive.

Zupljanin, a former Bosnian Serb Security chief, on the run for almost eight years, is accused of committing war crimes in Bosnia in 1992, tried to avoid being sent to The Hague by claiming the police had caught the wrong man.

Zupljanin had an ID card showing he was Branislav Vukadin from the city of Backa Palanka, born in 1951 and unemployed, but police discovered that the man whose identity he had stolen had been dead for some time. His true identity was confirmed after fingerprinting and a DNA test.

“Comparing the DNA analysis with Stojan Zupljanin’s parents, the identity of Stojan Zupljanin was confirmed. Investigative judge Dragan Plazinic wrote the order to place him in custody,” a spokeswoman for the Belgrade District Court told IWPR.

Zupljanin will shrtly be sent to The Hague.

The tribunal’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz welcomed news of Zupljanin’s arrest and said he hoped it would lead to more arrests soon.

“My team will continue to work closely with the Serbian war crimes prosecutor…so that Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic are brought to justice as soon as possible,” said Brammertz.

Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic, Bosnian Serb political leader Karadzic and local Croatian Serb leader Hadzic are all still at large. Their capture and transfer to The Hague is crucial if Serbia is to forge closer ties with the European Union – cooperation with the tribunal is a precondition for Serbian accession to the bloc.

At this stage, it is unclear whether Zupljanin had an organised network of helpers or whether he was in contact with the other men wanted by the tribunal.

Could Zupljanin lead the police to Mladic and Karadzic? Rasim Ljajic, president of the National Committee for Tribunal Cooperation, said he was not optimistic.

“It is hard to expect that this arrest will open the road to the remaining fugitives. We must investigate the network for each one separately. Zupljanin mostly hid alone, using false ID cards to rent apartments… He did not have an organised network of helpers,” said Ljajic.

An IWPR police source said several people suspected of helping the Hague tribunal fugitives are under surveillance, with their mobile phone calls being monitored.

He hinted that the surveillance operation could have led to further arrests.

“We had a dilemma about the Zupljanin arrest because there was the possibility that one more fugitive could be discovered. But this was the right time for action,” said the source.

Zupljanin has been on the run since 2001 when the tribunal made public the indictment against him. He is accused of persecutions, murders, extermination, deportation and other crimes committed in northwestern Bosnia in 1992.

The prosecutor said Zupljanin had “operational control over the subordinated municipal and regional police forces in the Autonomous Region of Krajina”.

The indictment also said a campaign to disarm the non-Serb population – under the guise of action against “Muslim and Croat extremists” or to collect “illegally held weapons” – was frequently used as a pretext for attacks on non-Serb villages.

“The forces under the control of the Bosnian Serb authorities seized power in those municipalities deemed to pose a threat to the accomplishment of the overall plan to create a Serb state within Bosnia and Herzegovina,” it said.

Zupljanin was eventually captured after a two-month surveillance operation. He was found living in a rented flat, belonging to Nikola Tepic, a former member of the national rugby team.

The police reportedly delayed launching the risky arrest several times to avoid casualties. They waited for Tepic to return from the supermarket and then entered the flat the moment he unlocked the front door, taking Zupljanin by surprise.

Zupljanin did not resist arrest and the operation was over in ten minutes.

“The action was very well performed. No one was injured. This arrest shows that Serbia has the political will to finish cooperation with the tribunal,” said Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to where Zupljanin has been hiding – in Russia, Montenegro or Bosnia. Police nearly caught up with him in March, but he is said to have left the flat an hour before they arrived.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.

More IWPR's Global Voices