The Scorpions: Paramilitaries Or Serbian State-Controlled Unit? – Analysis

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Witnesses told the Hague Tribunal that the notorious Scorpions unit was controlled by the Serbian Interior Ministry during the Yugoslav wars. Can an in-depth analysis of the court’s archives establish the truth?

By Una Sabljakovic

Material in the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY indicates that the Scorpions unit, whose members committed war crimes during the 1990s wars, were part of the Serbian Interior Ministry.

An indicator of the connection between the unit and the Interior Ministry is the presence of ministry officials, specifically Vasilije Mijovic, a member of the ministry’s Anti-Terrorist Unit (known as the Red Berets and later, as the Special Operations Unit) in the same areas at the same time as the members of the Scorpions.

However according to several verdicts handed down by courts in Serbia and the ICTY and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, not enough evidence was presented to support the conclusion that the Scorpions unit was connected to Serbian state institutions.

This analysis examines the documents and testimonies presented as evidence at the ICTY and in the Serbian courts during the trial of the Scorpions fighters, in an attempt to fully establish whether the Scorpions really were part of the Interior Ministry. If they were, it would prove that the Serbian state was directly involved in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina – which it has always denied.

The Scorpions committed one of the most notorious crimes of the Bosnian war. After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, several Scorpions fighters killed six imprisoned Bosniaks from Srebrenica in Godinjske Bare, near Trnovo – one of the massacres that took place during the Srebrenica genocide.

A member of the unit filmed the killings on a video that was later shown in court during the trial of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY. Five of the unit’s members were put on trial for the killings in Belgrade.

Natasa Kandic, the former executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, who was representing the victims in the Belgrade trial, claimed in her closing closing argument in 2007 that there was “a strategy to keep everything on an individual level” in the trial in order to prevent any investigation of “who is above the accused, as well as the participation of Serbian institutions” in war crimes.

Four Scorpions members were convicted and jailed, but as Kandic predicted, the court found that it was “not an ascertained fact” that they were part of the Serbian Interior Ministry. This also meant that the state was not liable to pay the victims compensation.

“One of the consequences of treating the Scorpions as a paramilitary unit is that the victims will not be entitled [under Serbian law] to a claim for damages.” Kandic said. “So justice will not be done.”

The origins of the Scorpions

Material in the ICTY archives offers several versions of how the Scorpions unit was set up. One version is that the unit was established in 1991 by the government of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, a self-proclaimed territory inside Croatia, and by Milan Milanovic, who worked at the Serbian Autonomous Region’s Defence Ministry.

A protected witness codenamed C-015 told ICTY investigators that the Scorpions Unit was founded by Milanovic, who told the witness that everything he was doing was for the Serbian State Security Service.

The witness’s claims were cited in the first-instance verdict in the trial of the former head of the Serbian State Security Service, Jovica Stanisic, and the former commander of the State Security Service’s Special Operations Unit, Franko Simatovic, who were accused of overseeing units that committed crimes during the Croatian and Bosnian wars, amongst other alleged crimes.

A former Scorpions member, Goran Stoparic, testified in Stanisic and Simatovic’s trial that an officer at the Scorpions’ headquarters in Djeletovci in Croatia had told him that the Scorpions were part of the State Security Service – an auxiliary unit of the Serbian Interior Ministry’s ‘Red Berets’ Anti-Terrorist Unit.

Stoparic also said that the Scorpions unit was established in late 1992 or 1993 at a meeting in Novi Sad in Serbia that was attended by Milan Milanovic and Slobodan Medic, who would later become the unit’s commander, as well as Serbian Customs Administration chief Mihalj Kertes, Serbian Interior Ministry official Radovan Stojicic and State Security Service official Rajo Bozovic.

Stoparic specified that members of the Scorpions had had their official Serbian military identification booklets, but not State Security identity cards. He also said that members of the Scorpions had issued him with a red identification booklet with Serbian Interior Ministry stamps.

In the initial, first-instance verdict in Stanisic and Simatovic’s trial in 2013, the ICTY trial chamber concluded that the Scorpions unit was established in late 1991 or early 1992, that its base was in Djeletovci and that its mission was to provide security at oilfields in the region and guard the border between the Republic of Serbian Krajina, a self-proclaimed entity within Croatia, and Croatia itself.

The first-instance verdict said that it was not possible to determine with sufficient certainty that in 1993, the Scorpions were managed by the Serbian State Security Service, which was headed by Stanisic.

The second first-instance verdict in the case, delivered in 2021 after Stanisic and Simatovic’s retrial, stated that Scorpions were under the command of the Republic of Serbian Krajina Army’s Territorial Defence force. They were then attached to the Blue Brigade of the Republic of Serbian Interior Krajina Ministry and in 1993, they were attached to the Republic of Serbian Krajina Army.

The verdict concluded that there was no evidence that Stanisic and Simatovic had been involved in the establishment of the Scorpions.

When it came to the allegation that the Scorpions unit was established at the meeting in Novi Sad, the verdict stated that it did not wholly dismiss Stoparic’s testimony, but repeated that his statement, which was based on what he heard from Medic, was not enough to conclude that in 1993, the Scorpions were run by the Serbian State Security Service.

Serbian Interior Ministry connections

The idea that the Scorpions were, at least for a period of time, connected with the Serbian Interior Ministry is partly based on witness testimonies during the trial of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and of Stanisic and Simatovic.

The claims made by the ICTY prosecutors in the proceedings against Stanisic and Simatovic were corroborated by documents presented as evidence during their trial and that of Milosevic, and some of them are mentioned in the trial of the Scorpions members in Belgrade.

The final verdict handed down by the ICTY to the former head of security of the Bosnian Serb Army’s headquarters, Ljubisa Beara, and four Republika Srpska officials stated that the appeals chamber noted that the Scorpions unit had not been part of the military or civilian structures of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, as it was a Serbian Interior Ministry unit.

This conclusion was backed by a Republika Srpska Interior Ministry dispatch dated July 1, 1995, which states that “units of the Serbian Interior Ministry” (named as Cayman, the Blues and the Scorpions) were active in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The document contains the typewritten signature of then deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb Interior Ministry’s Special Police Brigade, Ljubisa Borovcanin.

Other indicators that the Scorpions were connected with the Serbian Interior Ministry were witness statements claiming that some individuals who, according to documentation presented as evidence in court, were Serbian Interior Ministry employees, had commanded the Scorpions at certain periods or were present in the same areas at the same time as the members of this unit.

According to witnesses’ claims, these men included Interior Ministry Anti-Terrorist Unit members Vasilije Mijovic, Zivorad Ivanovic and Radojica Bozovic.

The Red Berets in Bratunac 

The Serbian Interior Ministry’s Anti-Terrorist Unit, the so-called Red Berets, established 26 training centres during the wars; in early 1993, they set up a training centre in Bratunac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where armed conflict had broken out a year earlier.

“I learned more reliable information on the structure of the Red Berets and the way they functioned in 1993, when their centre in Bratunac was established,” the former head of the Bratunac municipality’s wartime Crisis Headquarters, Miroslav Deronjic, told the ICTY prosecutors.

He said he met Vasilije Mijovic, who introduced himself as a major in the Serbian State Security Service. He said that, after arriving in Bratunac, members of the Anti-Terrorist Unit recruited some 100 people who underwent training at their centre.

“At the time, they were involved in all combat operations… The whole time they were there, and I learned about that from the locals who were members of that unit – the Serbian Interior Ministry was paying them,” Deronjic said in his statement to the ICTY prosecutors.

Did Miljovic lead the Scorpions in Trnovo?

In its final trial brief during the Stanisic and Simatovic trial, the prosecution stated that in June and July 1995, the Serbian security chiefs sent members of the Scorpions unit under Mijovic’s command to carry out an operation in the area around Trnovo and Treskavica Mountain in Bosnia.

The prosecution also claimed that Mijovic commanded the Scorpions, the Serbian Volunteer Guard and the Blues in the Treskavica operation.

Protected witness B-129, who from 1994 worked at the headquarters of Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic’s Serbian Unity Party and its paramilitary wing, the Serbian Volunteer Guard, said during the proceedings against Slobodan Milosevic that in June and July 1995, around 60 Serbian Volunteer Guard members were deployed to Treskavica.

B-129 said that their task was to cut the Bosniaks’ communication lines around Sarajevo together with a State Security unit which was led by Mijovic.

“Arkan informed me and the entire staff about this operation, even though the group went directly from [the Serbian Volunteer Guard base in] Erdut. But he wanted us to know about the operation as well, and he was given instructions by State Security, as he himself told me, as well as the fact that the State Security unit would be led by Vaso Mijovic,” said the witness.

She added that during the course of the Treskavica operation, whenever Mijovic was in Belgrade, he would come to the Serbian Unity Party and Serbian Volunteer Guard headquarters to pass on information from the field to Arkan.

She said that the Serbian State Security Service and the Serbian Volunteer Guard members had a shared command post on Treskavica Mountain.

Protected witness JF-029 told the court in Belgrade during the Scorpions’ trial that Slobodan Medic, allegedly Mijovic’s subordinate officer, had told him that Mijovic was the commander of the Scorpions, the Serbian Volunteer Guard and the Blues during the Trnovo operation.

However, at the court in Belgrade, where he and four other Scorpions members were on trial, Medic denied that Mijovic had been his superior.

His statement that Mijovic did not command the Scorpions is very similar to those of Goran Stoparic and another protected witness, JF-024, who both said that they had not seen Mijovic during the Trnovo operation, and did not even known who he was at the time.

Another allegation that Mijovic was the commander of the Scorpions was made during the Scorpions trial in Belgrade by former Republika Srpska deputy interior minister Tomislav Kovac, but Kovac also added that Mijovic had been part of the Republic of Serbian Krajina’s forces.

Documents put ministry officials in Trnovo

Among the documents presented as evidence at the ICTY and at the court in Belgrade that indicate that Serbian Interior Ministry officials were in Trnovo during the operation there in June and July 1995 is a report sent to a deputy minister in Bijeljina in Republika Srpska which was signed by deputy commander of the Republika Srpska Interior Ministry’s Special Police Brigade, Ljubisa Borovcanin, on July 1, 1995.

Borovcanin’s report stated that a group of units made up of “Cayman, the Blues and the Scorpions (of the Serbian Interior Ministry)” staged an attack in Lucevik near Trnovo on June 30, 1995.

The documents related to the Trnovo operation also include a memo by Mijovic dated July 19, 1995, and sent to the Republika Srpska Interior Ministry, which stated that a Serbian Interior Ministry unit had been ordered to withdraw from the combat zone in the Trnovo area “for the purpose of moving on to other assignments”.

The evidence presented at the court in Belgrade included a dispatch addressed to Republika Srpska deputy interior minister Tomislav Kovac dated July 24, 1995, signed by Republika Srpska Interior Ministry officer Savo Cvjetinovic, which said that “the Serbian Interior Ministry unit, the Scorpions” had been shifted out of the area.

The ICTY verdicts’ conclusion

In the initial first-instance verdict in the case against Stanisic and Simatovic in 2013, the ICTY’s trial chamber found that the decision to deploy the Scorpions to Trnovo was taken by Serbian Interior Ministry official Radovan Stojicic, along with Ilija Kojic, who led the Scorpions, the Serbian Volunteer Guard and the Blues to the Trnovo front, and Milan Milanovic from the Defence Ministry of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem.

It was approved by General Dusan Loncar of the 11th Corps of the Army of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, according to the trial chamber.

The trial chamber also concluded that there was no evidence that Stanisic and Simatovic had organised the Scorpions’ participation in the Trnovo operation.

As to whether or not Mijovic commanded the Scorpions in Trnovo, the ICTY’s trial chamber stated that no definitive conclusion could be made on the matter.

The second first-instance verdict in Stanisic and Simatovic’s trial in 2021 also stated that Mijovic had been involved in the Trnovo and Treskavica operation, but that there was no evidence regarding his role in relation to the Scorpions.

One of the explanations given in the verdict for this conclusion was that members of the Scorpions unit themselves had denied that Mijovic, a member of the Serbian Interior Ministry’s Anti-Terrorist Unit, had been their commander at the time.

The Belgrade court’s conclusion

In the verdict handed down in the Scorpions case in 2007, the Belgrade Higher Court said that the unit had been formed for the purpose of securing oil wells for the NIK oil company, which had financed it.

As of 1993, the unit had the status of a special unit of the Republic of Serbian Krajina Army and as such, the court concluded, participated in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and was involved in the operation in Trnovo in June and July 1995.

The court said however that allegations in documents from the ICTY that the Scorpions were involved in Trnovo as a Serbian Interior Ministry unit, and a Croatian Ministry of Defence report from 2006 that stated that the Scorpions unit was subordinate to the Serbian State Security Service, constituted “unofficial information and indications, but not ascertained fact”.

Former Scorpions fight again in Kosovo

After the Trnovo and Treskavica operation, the Scorpions also took part in operations in the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem in 1995, and were then disbanded in 1996.

During the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, some of the unit’s members joined the Serbian Interior Ministry’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit and were deployed in Kosovo. The official who received them into the unit was the head of the Department of Public Security, Vlastimir Djordjevic, who in 2014 was sentenced by the ICTY to 18 years in prison for crimes against humanity in Kosovo.

In Kosovo in 1999, members of the Scorpions unit committed one of the most serious crimes in the Yugoslav wars when they murdered 14 ethnic Albanian civilians, including seven children, in Podujevo/Podujeva. A court in Belgrade sentenced five of them to between 14 and 20 years in prison for the killings.

One of the indicators that senior government officials in Serbia knew about the existence of the unit was testimony to the ICTY by a deputy head of the Yugoslav Army security service, Aleksandar Vasiljevic, during cross-examination in the Milosevic trial.

“I know nothing about the Scorpions unit,” Milosevic insisted in court in 2003, to which Vasiljevic replied: “How can you know nothing when we reported to you on May 17 (1999)?”

Lawyer Dragoljub Todorovic, who represented the families of the victims in the Scorpions trial in Belgrade, claimed in the book The Scorpions: From Crimes to Justice that the court’s verdict, which found that they were not a Serbian Interior Ministry unit, was “guided by political rather than by legal reasons in a bid to adapt to the positions of the Serbian authorities with regard to accountability for the genocide in Srebrenica [for which Serbia denies any responsibility]”.

Since the judgments in The Hague and in Belgrade, the exact status of the Scorpions unit and the role of its alleged commander in the Trnovo operation, Vasilije Mijovic, have remained a grey area.

But another major court ruling is due which could possibly provide some more clarity. By the end of next year, the ICTY appeals chamber will deliver its final verdict in the case against Stanisic and Simatovic, and with it, the Hague court’s last conclusions about the Scorpions and Mijovic.

Una Sabljakovic is a Deutsche Welle correspondent in Belgrade. 

This article is published as a part of the Enhancing Accountability and Memorialisation Processes in the Balkans project, financed by the Matra Regional Rule of Law Programme.

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The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

One thought on “The Scorpions: Paramilitaries Or Serbian State-Controlled Unit? – Analysis

  • December 9, 2022 at 1:11 pm
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    Obviously the points below have no legal significance, but I feel they are worth making.
    I direct interested persons to this website Category: Serbian irredentism – Wikipedia and Christopher Clark’s, The Sleepwalkers (2013), in particular the chapter on Serbia.

    The modus operandi of The Scorpions seems remarkably similar to that of the Black Hand Gang – Black Hand (Serbia) – Wikipedia which operated before 1914 and which many see as the group that assassinated Archduke Ferdinand. Close but deniable links to the Serbian state is something these groups both share. Clark’s book describes many actions by Serbian irredentists in the decades running up to World War I which would nowadays be identified as “ethnic cleansing”, if not genocide.

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