Hague Tribunal judgments and evidence files contain names of Bosnian Serb soldiers and policemen who have never been prosecuted for suspected involvement in killings, ethnic cleansing and detention camp abuses in Bosnia’s Prijedor area in 1992, a BIRN investigation has found.
By Marija Tausan and Lamija Grebo
Alma Karabasic turned 16 a few weeks before she and her family were forced to leave her village of Kamicani, near the city of Kozarac in Bosnia’s north-western Prijedor municipality, on May 24, 1992.
She said she still remembers the shooting, how she hid in her relatives’ basement, and how she fled the village.
“We saw behind us that the houses were already on fire on the 24th, in the early evening. So we left as quickly as we could in order to get to other villages to save ourselves,” Karabasic said.
Several members of her family, including her grandmother and grandfather, were killed. Some of their bodies have still not been found.
Bosnian Serb military and police forces and Serb paramilitaries launched an intensive campaign against Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats as they seized control over the Prijedor area by force from late April 1992 onwards.
Karabasic’s relatives were among several thousand people who were killed, according to verdicts handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY in The Hague.
The ICTY also established that thousands of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats were imprisoned in Bosnian Serb-run detention camps around Prijedor.
BIRN’s analysis of all the completed Hague cases related to crimes in Prijedor, including documents included as evidence, witness testimonies and experts’ findings, shows that three Bosnian Serb Army brigades, along with police and paramilitary groups, participated in the attacks on villages in Prijedor.
Hague judgments contain the names of numerous members of the Bosnian Serb Army and police force suspected of involvement in these attacks in 1992 but never put on trial.
The Hague cases also include the names of at least ten guards at detention camps who were accused by witnesses of involvement in the beatings or killings of inmates, but who have never been indicted.
Hague prosecutors also drew up an indictment, planning to charge a large group of suspects with crimes committed in detention camps in Prijedor, but did not take it any further, as they thought that the accusations would be prosecuted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But some of the suspects were never tried at domestic courts, BIRN has learned.
The ICTY sentenced a total of 18 people to 276 years in prison for wartime crimes in the Prijedor area, plus a life sentence for Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic. Continuing the prosecutions initiated in The Hague, the Bosnian state court in Sarajevo sentenced 20 people to a total of 352 years in prison for crimes against the Bosniak and Croat population in Prijedor.
Some cases have also been prosecuted in Banja Luka and Belgrade, and six trials involving 30 defendants accused of wartime crimes in the Prijedor area are still ongoing at the Bosnian state court.
But BIRN’s research shows that almost 25 years after the war ended, many more suspects have continued to evade judicial scrutiny and potential trial for their alleged involvement in wartime violations in Prijedor.
Bosniak villages attacked and ‘cleared out’
Trials at the Hague Tribunal determined that units under the command of the Bosnian Serb Army’s First Krajina Corps participated in attacks on villages in the Prijedor area from May to July 1992. During those attacks, murders were committed, locals were seized and detained, while the property owned by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats was pillaged and destroyed.
Evidence shows that the First Krajina Corps units involved in the Prijedor attacks were the 343rd Motorised Brigade from Prijedor, which later became the 43rd Motorised Brigade, the Sixth Sana Brigade and the Fifth Kozara Brigade. Bosnian Serb police forces and Serb paramilitary groups were also involved.
The attacks began with operations in the villages of Hambarine and Kozarac in late May 1992, then continued into the summer.
Mirsad Duratovic, who was 17 at the time and lived in the village of Biscani, said that Bosnian Serb forces began a “clean-up operation” in the village on July 20, 1992.
“The Serb army and police came to our house,” Duratovic recalled. “They used me and three other minors, including my brother, as human shields while walking through the village, and shot my father and his family over there in the immediate vicinity of the house.”
When the Serbs no longer needed the minors as human shields, Duratovic was sent to the nearby Omarska detention camp, and his brother was killed.
The ICTY’s final verdicts in the cases against Prijedor municipality chief Milomir Stakic and Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic determined that the Bosnian Serb Army’s 343rd Motorised Brigade and 6th Sana Brigade, plus the police’s Public Security Station in Prijedor and paramilitary groups participated in the attacks on Hambarine and Kozarac.
The verdicts established that an attack on Serb soldiers at a Bosniak-controlled checkpoint in Hambarine on May 22, 1992 led to Serb forces retaliating with what military expert witness General Richard Wilmot called an “unwarranted” attack on the Bosniak civilian population and the destruction of dozens of homes.
A First Krajina Corps report dated May 24, 1992, which described the Hambarine incident, was used as evidence in The Hague. “Muslim forces conducted an armed attack and were cleared from that area [of the Prijedor municipality] in an operation by our forces,” it said.
Another First Krajina Corps report, dated May 27, 1992, said that “there are 80-100 casualties among the ‘Green Berets’ [Bosniak forces] and around 1,500 have been taken captive”. It said that parts of the 343rd Motorised Brigade supported by two 105mm howitzer batteries and a squad of M-84 tanks participated in the fighting.
The Hague Tribunal verdicts determined that the 343rd Motorised Brigade was commanded by colonel Vladimir Arsic, while major Radmilo Zeljaja had direct command over the attack.
According to witness testimony at Prijedor municipality chief Milomir Stakic’s trial, prior to the attack, Zeljaja held a meeting with leaders of the Bosniak-run Party of Democratic Action, asking them to hand in several thousand weapons or else he would raze Kozarac to the ground. Zeljaja was told that the Bosniaks did not have that many guns, but he said that was their problem.
Serif Velic, who was a Party of Democratic Action councillor and commander of the local Territorial Defence force, recalled seeing Zeljaja in his home village of Kevljani, near Kozarac. He said that some of the locals had already left the village, while the remaining residents set out to surrender.
“We surrendered in front of our school building in Kevljani. Commander Radmilo Zeljaja was there on that day,” Velic told BIRN.
Zeljaja’s presence and role in Kozarac were also determined in other documents used in Hague trials, including the First Krajina Corps’ log. The log also indicates that the Fifth Kozara Brigade sent 35 soldiers to the area on May 24, 1992.
Military expert Ewan Brown wrote in a report entitled ‘Military Situation in Bosnian Krajina – 1992’, which was used at Stakic’s trial and in other cases, that Arsic was the commander of the 343rd Motorised Brigade and Zeljaja his deputy when the attacks on Hambarine, Kozarac and Prijedor took place.
“Although lieutenant-colonel Arsic commanded the brigade, major Zeljaja actively participated in commanding the forces in the field in Prijedor from late May 1992,” Brown wrote, pointing to a record in the log dated May 23, in which Zeljaja was referred to as “commander of the Prijedor region”.
Brown wrote that both officers were later promoted and Zeljaja became commander of the 43rd Brigade. Arsic was commended for the operation in Kozarac and promoted to commander of the Doboj Operational Group.
“He superintended the operation in Kozarac, where he managed, by making the correct decisions and quickly regrouping the units, to break the stronger and more organised Muslim units with minimal losses,” said a Bosnian Serb Army assessment of Arsic from July 1993, signed by the commander of the First Krajina Corps, Momir Talic.
Talic was accused in a Hague Tribunal indictment of committing crimes in several municipalities including Prijedor during the war, but died after the start of his trial.
Neither Arsic nor Zeljaja has ever been charged with war crimes. BIRN was unable to contact Arsic. Zeljaja was contacted by telephone in Serbia but declined to comment.
Bosnian Serb police involvement in the Prijedor attacks was confirmed in a report by the police’s Public Security Station in Prijedor, which said that its officers participated in operations in “combat activities on the territory of our municipality” from May 22, 1992 onwards.
“Combat activities were most intense in the areas of Kozarac, Kozarusa, Trnopolje, Kamicani, Rizvanovici, Biscani, Hambarine, Zecovi, Carakovo, Kurevo, Raljas, Cela and the town of Prijedor itself,” said the report dated January 1993.
Afterwards, it continued, “police officers worked intensively to clear up the area, apprehending and processing certain individuals who were associated with enemy actions in that area”.
The Hague Tribunal laid war crimes charges against the chief of the Public Security Station in Prijedor, Simo Drljaca, who was described in a Human Rights Watch report as “one of the most notorious police officials in the whole of former Yugoslavia”, but Drljaca was killed during an attempt to arrest him in 1997.
A report by the First Krajina Corps dated August 22, 1992, which was presented at Radovan Karadzic’s trial, said that the leaders of the Military Police Company, lieutenant Mile Jovic and his deputy Milos Preradovic “have developed a bad reputation. Numerous illegal acts have been attributed to them, while some police officers claim that they could prove they committed individual robberies and abused their position.”
Neither Jovic nor Preradovic have been prosecuted. Contacted by BIRN, Preradovic insisted he had no information about any crimes. “I was a professional policeman… and a professional policeman and a professional soldier will never commit evil crimes,” he said. BIRN was unable to contact Jovic, but he told the Bosnian state court that he did not command the Military Police Company.
Paramilitary groups were also involved in criminal attacks in Prijedor, “pillaging and burning property and killing the innocent population”, according to a report by the Bosnian Serb Army’s Main Headquarters on July 28, 1992, which was cited at Hague trials.
The report alleges that several paramilitary groups, such as the Mackova Group from Misevici, the Zoljina Group and the Cigina Group were active in the Prijedor area. None of the members or leaders of these groups has been prosecuted.
Murders, beatings and sexual abuse of detainees
After the attacks in the Prijedor area, from the end of May 1992 onwards, thousands of Bosniaks and Croats were imprisoned in Serb-run detention facilities. These included the Public Security Station in Prijedor, the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje detention camps, the Cultural Centre building in Miska Glava, a stadium in Ljubija and a military barracks in the Prijedor municipality, according to Hague Tribunal judgments.
Large numbers of non-Serb men were held at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, where there were numerous cases of murders, beatings and sexual abuse, and where detainees were held in extremely inhumane conditions.
Alma Karabasic said that her father was sent to Omarska and later killed, while she was sent to the Trnopolje with her brother, mother and other family members.
“The first night was horrible, there was no electricity or anything. We could not sleep at all, because we heard children screaming, guards entering, we could not see anything, it was dark. Whenever a child began crying, they risked being killed,” she recalled.
Another captured Bosniak, local Territorial Defence commander Serif Velic, was taken to the Omarska camp on May 27, 1992 and was subjected to torture several times while in detention.
“There were five of them and me. They brutalised me for three hours. I was exhausted, half of my ribcage was broken, I fainted and fell down,” he recalled.
In 1995, prosecutors in The Hague charged a series of men with committing crimes at the Omarska and Keraterm detention camps including beatings, killings and rape. Some of them were put on trial in The Hague, others were tried later at the Bosnian state court in Sarajevo.
But in May 1998, the Hague court approved a prosecutor’s request to withdraw indictments against 13 of the suspects – Zdravko Govedarica, Predrag Kostic, Nedeljko Paspalj, Milan Pavlic, Milutin Popovic, Drazenko Predojevic, Zeljko Savic, Mirko Babic, Nikica Janjic, Dragomir Saponja, Dragan Kondic, Goran Lajic and Nedjeljko Timarac.
The chief prosecutor at the time, Louise Arbour, explained that because increasing numbers of suspects were being arrested, the ICTY couldn’t hold individual trials for all of them, particularly if they could be tried at the Bosnian state court instead.
“I want to point out that this decision is not based on the lack of evidence for these defendants,” Arbour said.
BIRN was unable to contact 11 of the defendants. One of them, Nikica Janjic, has died, according to an ICTY document. The only one who spoke to BIRN was Dragomir Saponja, who said that he read online that the indictment against him was withdrawn.
Various detention camp managers, supervisors of guard shifts, guards and so-called ‘visitors’ to the facilities who were responsible for crimes in Omarska and Keraterm have been convicted over the years, and at their trials, witnesses have mentioned a series of names of people they claim were responsible for beatings and murders at both camps.
Some of those whose indictments were withdrawn in 1998 have also been mentioned at trials by witnesses, like Nedjeljko Timarac and Goran Lajic, who were named alongside a man called Miso Radulovic and a person nicknamed ‘Faca’ in connection with killings, beatings and various other abuses at Keraterm. Timarac and Lajic remain unprosecuted, and Radulovic and ‘Faca’ have never been charged.
The verdict in the Hague trial of Dusko Sikirica, Damir Dosen and Dragan Kolundzija said that armed ‘visitors’ used to arrive at the camp at night and “did as they pleased” to the inmates; it was alleged that Lajic was among them. A witness testified in the same case that a woman told her she was raped by Timarac.
The Bosnian state court’s verdict in the trial of Zeljko Mejakic, Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Fustar and Dusko Knezevic said that Milutin Popovic, Drazenko Predojevic and other guards at Omarska beat a man who then died as a consequence of the assault. The verdict also said that guard Milan Pavlic killed another man at Omarska. Popovic, Predojevic and Pavlic have never been prosecuted.
In the second half of July 1992, there were massacres at Omarska and Keraterm. According to some estimates, more than 200 detainees were killed. The perpetrators have not been prosecuted.
Hague Tribunal judgments state that around 200 people were brought from the Brda area of central Bosnia and Herzegovina on July 16, 1992 and detained at the so-called White House building at Omarska, which was known as a place where inmates were taken to be beaten.
One night, witnesses heard gunshots and later saw dead bodies in front of the White House. Some of the detainees were forced to load the bodies onto a truck.
One protected witness at a Hague trial said he saw detention camp guards, including a man called Zivko Marmat, shooting the victims in the head. Marmat has never been indicted for war crimes.
According to another witness, the murders were committed while Milutin Popovic, one of the men whose indictment was dropped by the Hague prosecution, was on shift as a guard.
Unlike Omarska and Keraterm, no large-scale trials for crimes in Trnopolje have been held. Verdicts in other Hague cases stated that, although the abuse in Trnopolje was on a smaller scale than at Omarska, there were incidents of beatings and rape.
According to judgments, Trnopolje was managed by Slobodan Kuruzovic, the commander of the Territorial Defence headquarters in Prijedor, whose assistant commander for a certain period of time was Slavko Puhalic.
A Hague Tribunal document from Radovan Karadzic’s trial said that Kuruzovic has since died. Puhalic testified in Karadzic’s defence and admitted there were individual incidents of abuse at Trnopolje before military security was introduced. He said he reported those cases to Kuruzovic, who went to the police and demanded an investigation. Neither Kuruzovic nor Puhalic was ever indicted.
Although many names of potential suspects can be gleaned from the verdicts handed down by the UN court and the testimonies of Hague witnesses in cases related to the Bosnian Serbs’ military takeover of Prijedor in 1992 and the mass detentions of non-Serb civilians, this does necessarily mean that there are adequate grounds for prosecution, cautioned Senka Nozica, who has worked as a lawyer in war crime cases and at the Hague court.
“The mere fact that someone’s name is mentioned in any court verdict, be it from the Hague court or our [Bosnian state] court, does not in itself constitute sufficient evidence. It may be an indication for the prosecutor to investigate further,” Nozica said.
But Nihada Buturovic, a lawyer who has represented defendants at the Hague Tribunal, argued that the Bosnian judiciary has not made enough use of the wealth of evidence from the UN court.
“The Hague Tribunal placed thousands of pieces of evidence in the palm of our judiciary’s hand. These are good quality pieces of evidence which can be used,” Buturovic urged.
The Bosnian state prosecution did not respond to BIRN’s request for a comment about the issues raised by this article.