Investigation 07 Dec 16

Balkan War Crime Suspects Maintain Political Influence

Years after the Balkan conflicts, voters in former Yugoslav countries are still electing people who have been convicted of or charged with war crimes, showing how nationalism still distorts the political environment.

Milivoje Pantovic, Denis Dzidic, Die Morina, Sven Milekic, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Semra Musai BIRN Belgrade, Sarajevo, Pristina, Zagreb, Skopje
 

When Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj used his mobile phone to play a nationalist song hymning Donald Trump to MPs in parliament last month, it highlighted the disruptive influence that war crimes suspects can still wield in public life in the Balkans.

Seselj’s war crimes case is currently on appeal at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia after he was acquitted in a first-instance ruling in March this year.

But since he returned to Belgrade in 2014 after being granted temporary leave by the court for cancer treatment, he has brought his firebrand nineties-style rhetoric about creating a ‘Greater Serbia’ back to the country’s political scene. He was elected an MP in April this year and is now a member of the parliamentary board for the control of security agencies.

Seselj has also announced that he will run for the Serbian presidency in 2017.

Two members of his party, Petar Jojic and Vjerica Radeta, who are still wanted by the UN-backed Tribunal for allegedly threatening, blackmailing and trying to bribe protected witnesses not to testify at Seselj’s trial, were also elected as MPs in the Serbian parliament this year.

The Hague court has called on all UN member states to arrest them if possible. But Serbia has so far refused to extradite them and Radeta dismissed the Tribunal - which is due to close next year - as a “story that is over”. “No Radical will turn himself in to it,” she told BIRN.

In almost all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, people who have been accused or convicted of committing crimes during the wars of the 1990s can still command enough public support to be elected.

Politicians who have stood trial for war crimes have been elected to office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo as well as Serbia; a Hague Tribunal convict is also currently running for parliament in Macedonia’s upcoming elections.

Their continued political careers are a reflection of how nationalism remains a powerful force in Balkan politics, used as a tool to rouse populist fervour and win votes at election time. It can also cause diplomatic problems between ex-Yugoslav states, as Seselj did when he publicly burned the flag of neighbouring Croatia in April last year.

The fact that they are able to maintain political influence perpetuates an atmosphere in which denying that crimes were committed by ‘our side’ remains acceptable, analysts suggest.

“By voting for them, we give them legitimacy, support their stances, endorse their past and their crimes and not only negate court decisions, but more importantly, negate the right of victims of those crimes to find peace and [legal] satisfaction,” argued Aleksandra Letic from the Helsinski Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

“A society in which a number of citizens still support criminals and their political and economic power cannot even be close to being ready to face its past,” Letic said.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was once a member of Seselj’s Radicals, and worked as a legal adviser on his war crimes case in The Hague, until he split with Seselj in 2008 to set up his own Serbian Progressive Party, which is now in government.

There are no legal accusations of wartime wrongdoing against Vucic or any MPs from his party, but his coalition partners in the Serbian government, the Socialist Party, do have a war criminal on their main board.

Former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic was elected to the Socialists’ main board only a week after he returned to Belgrade after serving two-thirds of his 18-year sentence for a campaign of violence during the Kosovo war aimed at forcibly displacing the ethnic Albanian population.

He was one of the closest and most trusted associates of Yugoslav president and former Socialist Party leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial in The Hague in 2006.

Milica Kostic, the legal programme director at Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre, argued that there has been no real debate in Serbia about who was responsible for the wars of the 1990s, and therefore no public awareness about the crimes that were committed.

“The political elite in Serbia, and here I mean all governments from the 1990s until today, never let the public have a real debate about the responsibilities of representatives of state institutions for crimes committed during the wars and their worthiness to continue to perform state functions,” Kostic said.

Bosniak Rebel ‘Daddy’ Makes a Comeback

 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a series of politicians who are now in office have been charged with or accused of war crimes, but only one convict currently holds power - 77-year-old veteran Fikret Abdic.

Abdic was elected in October’s local elections as the mayor of the north-western municipality of Velika Kladusa, where his crimes were committed.

Before the war, Abdic was an executive at Agrokomerc, whose headquarters were in Velika Kladusa and which employed 13,000 people, making it one of the most prosperous agricultural firms in the former Yugoslavia. His business success won him local popularity and the nickname ‘Babo’ (‘Daddy’).

During the war, he founded the breakaway Bosniak-led Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia, which fought against fellow Bosniaks who were loyal to the Sarajevo government and cooperated with Serb and Croat forces.

Abdic was convicted of responsibility for war crimes against Bosnian Army prisoners but released in March 2012 after serving two-thirds of his 15-year sentence.

His election as mayor was possible because Bosnian law does not bar war criminals who have served their sentences from holding office. “I have excelled in all my positions and I will excel in this one,” he promised after the vote.

Meanwhile an MP in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated political entity Republika Srpska, Dragomir Vasic, is currently standing trial for allegedly planning and implementing mass executions of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in July 1995.

Vasic was elected to the Republika Srpska People’s Assembly in October 2014 as a candidate of the Serb Democratic Party founded by Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted this year of genocide and other crimes by the UN court in The Hague.

Several other men who have been accused of war crimes also hold political office in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the state level, the current president of parliament’s House of Representatives, Sefik Dzaferovic - a wartime police commander in the town of Zenica - faced claims last year that he knew about war crimes by Bosniak forces against Serb civilians but did not report them.

However, the state prosecution decided not to investigate Dzaferovic, sparking anger among Bosnian Serb victims’ groups and politicians who boycotted parliamentary sessions over the issue. Dzaferovic denied the claims: “These are all filthy lies,” he said.

Zaim Backovic, a lawmaker in the state parliament who was a wartime member of Territorial Defence units in Sarajevo, was investigated by both the Bosnian and Serbian prosecutions over the killings of Yugoslav People’s Army troops when they were pulling out of the capital in 1992. The investigation in Sarajevo ended without an indictment, but the Serbian prosecution has continued its probe.

New Kosovo Court Casts a Shadow

 

Despite being in prison, Sami Lushtaku remains the mayor of Skenderaj/Srbica in Kosovo after being sentenced to seven years in jail for having command responsibility for the abuse of ethnic Albanian civilian prisoners at a Kosovo Liberation Army detention centre in the village of Likovc/Likovac during the war.

Anyone convicted of war crimes under a final verdict in Kosovo is not allowed to hold office, but Lushtaku is taking his case to the Supreme Court in the hope of having his sentence quashed.

Two other politicians recently convicted of committing war crimes during the late 1990s conflict in Kosovo have however stepped down from office after the appeals court in Pristina upheld their war crimes convictions.

Fadil Demaku resigned as an MP and Nexhat Demaku quit as mayor of the Drenas municipality after their convictions was upheld. Both were jailed for three years for beating prisoners at the same KLA detention centre in Likovc/Likovac.

All three politicians were all members of the Kosovo Liberation Army’s so-called ‘Drenica Group’, which has been the source of many of the country’s political leaders since the war, including President Hashim Thaci.

The trial of the Drenica Group men sparked protests in Kosovo because KLA guerrillas are seen as freedom fighters who struggled for liberation against Serbian forces during the war.

Many other members of Kosovo’s post-war political elite are also former KLA fighters, and have retained their influence despite the allegations against some of them, which are often seen by the public as attempts to tarnish a righteous war.

Fatmir Limaj, who is currently an MP and the leader of the NISMA (Initiative for Kosovo) party, has been acquitted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal and by courts in Kosovo.

However Limaj was charged with war crimes again last month by Kosovo’s Special Prosecution, which accused him of not preventing the murder of two Kosovo Albanian civilians in October 1998. He denies the allegation.

Known as ‘Commander Steel’ during the war, Limaj headed the KLA’s 121st Brigade in the Pashtriku area. After the war, he became Kosovo’s transport minister, but his time in office was cut short by organised crime and corruption allegations.

Ramush Haradinaj - who was briefly prime minister of Kosovo in 2005 - was also acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Hague Tribunal, and given a rapturous welcome by thousands of well-wishers on his return to Pristina in 2012.

He was cleared of torturing and killing Serbs and ethnic Albanians who were believed to have collaborated with Serbs at a KLA-run detention centre at Jablanica in 1998.

Haradinaj now leads the opposition Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK political party, although he resigned as an MP in February amid resistance to an agreement that the Kosovo government signed with Serbia in Brussels. Former KLA deputy commander Lahi Ibrahimaj, who was acquitted alongside him, remains an AAK MP.

Haradinaj argued that Kosovo did its legal duty by sending suspects like himself to stand trial in The Hague: “We honoured the obligations that Kosovo and its people have to national and international law,” he told BIRN.

However he also insisted that the KLA’s commanders should not have been prosecuted in The Hague: “We aspired to freedom, we fought for freedom. And the way that international justice perceived the war in Kosovo was incorrect,” he said.

But a greater challenge could still face Kosovo’s political elite when the first indictments are issued by the new Specialist Chambers in The Hague.

This new court was set up, under pressure from the West, to try senior KLA figures for alleged crimes committed during and after the war. If some of Kosovo’s leading politicians are charged or convicted, analysts say it could transform the political scene in the country.

Croatian Nationalists Provoke Headlines

 

Retired general Branimir Glavas, the unofficial leader of a right-wing regional party, the Croatian Democratic Assembly of Slavonia and Baranja, HDSSB, was voted back into parliament at elections in September even though he is awaiting retrial for war crimes.

During wartime, Glavas was the commander of the defence of the town of Osijek, and between the early 1990s and mid-2000s, he was also an influential MP with the dominant right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, as well as being the Osijek county prefect.

He was convicted of war crimes in two cases - the ‘Garage’ case, in which he was accused of having command responsibility for the torture and killing of a civilian in front of a garage in 1991, and the ‘Duct Tape’ case, so named because the victims were tied up with tape and executed on a riverbank in 1991-92.

Croatian law forbids people with final judgments for war crimes from holding office, but the Constitutional Court quashed Glavas’s verdict in January 2015, and he was returned to parliament in elections later that year, then re-elected in September 2016. He handed over his seat to a party colleague last month; the date for the start of his retrial is not yet known.

The popularity of his party has plunged, but Glavas’s HDSSB still makes headlines with stunts like parading a black-clad militia-style ‘youth unit’ called the Slavonic Hawk Guard at election campaign rallies last year. He also caused controversy by posing with a bottle of wine with Adolf Hitler on its label.

Croatia’s HDZ-led government recently gave an important position to another retired general who was acquitted of war crimes, Ante Gotovina. Gotovina, who the UN court cleared in 2012 of the killings and deportations of Serb civilians during the Croatian Army’s Operation Storm, was appointed as a special adviser to the defence ministry to develop a national security strategy.

Although not an active politician anymore, HDZ veteran Vladimir Seks, who has been accused of war crimes by Serbia, remains on the political scene, and until February was an adviser to Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic.

The Serbian authorities investigated Seks, Branimir Glavas, 1990s Croatian interior minister Ivan Vekic and his assistant and police commander Tomislav Mercep for allegedly encouraging others to commit “genocide” against local Serbs in the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar.

Mercep meanwhile was sentenced by Zagreb county court in May to five-and-a-half years in prison for war crimes against civilians, convicted of command responsibility for the killings of 46 civilians by a reservist police battalion known as the ‘Mercepovci’ in 1991.

Mercep’s political career has been unsuccessful, but he is often present at state ceremonial events and was a VIP guest at Grabar Kitarovic’s inauguration in February last year.

Veteran Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski argued that the continued presence of people like Glavas and Mercep in public life was proof that the process of facing up the past has so far been unsuccessful.

“This generation didn’t manage to do anything; maybe the next generation will,” Puhovski told BIRN.

‘Macedonian Hero’ Runs for Parliament

 

Former policeman Johan Tarculovski, the only Macedonian convicted by the Hague Tribunal of committing war crimes, is standing as a parliamentary candidate for the ruling VMRO DPMNE party at elections this month.

Macedonia has no law barring war crimes convicts from holding political office.

The Hague Tribunal sentenced Tarculovski to 12 years in jail for leading a police unit that killed ethnic Albanian civilians and committed other atrocities in the Albanian-populated village of Ljuboten near Skopje in 2001.

The crime happened during the brief armed conflict between Macedonian security forces and a now-disbanded ethnic Albanian insurgent force called the National Liberation Army, whose leaders now run the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI party, which is part of the country’s current ruling alliance, alongside the VMRO DPMNE.

After Tarculovski’s release in 2013, the VMRO DPMNE-led government led by the VMRO DPMNE staged a hero’s welcome for him in Skopje, and since then he has become an icon for the ruling party, frequently giving patriotic speeches at party meetings and gatherings.

He was also given a prominent position as the organisational secretary of the VMRO DPMNE, which portrays him as a ‘defender’ of Macedonia who fell victim to an unjust trial in The Hague.

The UN Tribunal sent four more war-crimes cases from the 2001 conflict back to Macedonia for processing by the domestic judiciary, but the ruling VMRO DPMNE/DUI coalition voted to abandon them and effectively close the books on the cases.

All four cases involved alleged crimes by ethnic Albanian guerrillas, some of whom hold senior posts in the DUI.

In the first case, the entire ten-person leadership of the National Liberation Army, most of whom are now in the DUI’s top ranks, was charged with command responsibility for actions that resulted in war crimes, such as a massacre of soldiers and police officers near the village of Vejce.

The political leader of the insurgents, Ali Ahmeti, who is now the head of the DUI, was the most prominent figure linked to the Vejce case.

The second case that was scrapped linked the insurgents with the alleged kidnapping and murder of 12 ethnic Macedonian civilians by paramilitaries near the town of Tetovo, whose bodies were later found in a mass grave.

Daut Rexhepi-Leka was charged with leading the paramilitary group, but insisted he was not guilty. He was elected as an MP with the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians in 2006 while still subject to an arrest warrant, although he is now no longer politically active.

Another case was opened and later closed against Sajdula Duraku, a National Liberation Army insurgent commander who became a senior DUI official. He was accused of cutting off the water supply to the town of Kumanovo during the conflict in 2001. Duraku served as agriculture minister from 2004 to 2006, then as a DUI MP, and is now the mayor of Lipkovo, the municipality next to Kumanovo.

Unanswered questions about the 2001 conflict, which were never examined in court, have continued to poison relations between the country’s majority ethnic Macedonian community and ethnic Albanian minority, political analyst Ismet Ramadani, a former MP, told BIRN.

“As long as the justice system is not functioning and continues to be influenced by political parties, it is very hard to go forward,” Ramadani said. “The mistrust between communities… burdens Macedonia’s path to democratisation and to ending the political crises which often risk the country’s security.”

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