Interview 18 Nov 17

Serbia ‘Fostered Culture of Denial’ by Hiding Mladic

Author and journalist Julian Borger argues that because Serbia was not penalised for shielding Ratko Mladic while he was on the run, it helped foster a culture of denial of war crimes and genocide.

Denis Dzidic BIRN Sarajevo
Julian Borger with his book 'The Butcher's Trail'. Photo: UN.

The Guardian newspaper’s world affairs editor Julian Borger, author of the book ‘The Butcher’s Trail’, which examines the hunt for Balkan war crime suspects, says Serbia has been given a free pass for helping former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic during his years on the run from the Hague Tribunal.

“I am not aware of any kind of punitive action whatsoever and of course, the absence of accountability has contributed to the spread of a culture of denial in Serbia, which has culminated… with the appointment of a convicted war criminal as a lecturer in a military academy,” Borger told BIRN in an interview.

Former Yugoslav Army officer Vladimir Lazarevic, who served a sentence for war crimes in Kosovo, was appointed last month to teach at the Serbian Military Academy.

“That is just one illustration how the long term legacy of the [Hague] Tribunal of setting the record straight was not achieved, and we have seen denial and culture of denial seep back in, ever faster, in Belgrade and Republika Srpska in particular,” Borger said.

He said that he wrote his book after becoming aware, when Mladic was arrested, how much was not known about his time in hiding, which spanned 16 years.

He was eventually captured in a village in northern Serbia and sent to The Hague to stand trial at the UN war crimes tribunal, where his verdict is due next week.

“I wanted to tell the story of how wartime suspects were tracked down, but as a bigger theme, the book demonstrated that with a little bit of international will and resolve, a court that was formed by a [UN] Security Council resolution can show that international justice didn’t necessarily have to be imaginary,” he explained.

“This was a mission taken to the full. It may have taken a bit of time, because of mixed motives, and difficulty of finding individuals but was carried out to the end, and that is an important example for what is possible under international humanitarian law. We look back at it now, and it was a high watermark for international enforcement of justice for mass crimes,” he added.

Mladic ‘dehumanised’ his victims

Borger said that he believes that Mladic “dehumanised his victims”.

“Wherever war crimes are committed, you find people like these who rise to the top... We see people like Mladic, we know his type, [there were] plenty in the Nazi era, and plenty like him resurfaced in Yugoslavia, and there are people like him now in Syria and in Central Africa,” he continued.

The first indictment against Mladic was raised in 1995, but his trial did not begin until 2011; the verdict is expected on November 22.

He is charged, as the commander of Bosnian Serb forces, with genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 and six other municipalities in 1992, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout the country, terrorising the population of Sarajevo and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

Borger expects that Mladic will be convicted of the Srebrenica genocide and the crimes in Sarajevo, but said that it is unclear whether the Hague court will find that genocide also took place in 1992.

The length of the sentence can also not be predicted after former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic was not given life in prison even though he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity; instead he was jailed for 40 years.

Borger believes that the Mladic verdict will be a reminder of what happened during the war in the 1990s, and how a genuine effort was made to track down war criminals afterwards.

“Right now, mass crimes are being committed in Syria and Central Africa and we have lost the will of the international community to bring people to account and it will serve as a reminder that once a genuine attempt was made to do that,” Borger said.

“What allowed the Hague Tribunal to happen was a short window in history that Russia was prepared to go along with the US in terms of enforcement of international humanitarian law,” he added.

“That window soon closed, and now you have situation in which Russia and China will not go along with it, and the US showed unwillingness to allow a system of justice in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to be made universal, because they did not want it to affect or be applicable in any way to the US.”

Another important aspect of the verdict, Borger continued, is that in reviewing the case, the court will not be able to avoid the fact that Mladic was sheltered for a long time by the Serbian military while he was in hiding and that he was paid from Belgrade.

Borger’s book demonstrates that the Serbian military was first directly involved in hiding Mladic, and then the state authorities went out of their way to avoid catching him. He lists the example of a raid on the village of Mostanica near Belgrade, when officers failed to detain the fugitive general.

“They came up and went to the wrong house and it’s always difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and deliberate incompetence,” he said.

Borger believes that despite being under pressure from the US and the Hague Tribunal, a UN court, “overall in those years, Serbia was not trying hard… they did it in a way that allowed him to get away”.

The Russian connection

In his book, Borger also touches on Russian support for Mladic, information about which mostly came out of his interview with Miodrag Rakic, the aide to Serbian President Boris Tadic who coordinated the hunt for the former Bosnian Serb military chief.

“Rakic found that whenever [the Serbian authorities] put pressure on a family member [to reveal Mladic’s whereabouts], [the family member] would go to the Russian embassy in Belgrade and come out and suddenly be less amenable to pressure. As far as Rakic was concerned, Russians were giving assurances to family members they would look after them,” said Borger.

“It’s only when Rakic complained to Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, that eventually this support stopped,” he added.

Borger also wrote that Rakic was sure that Russian intelligence penetrated the Hague Tribunal.

“Rakic once met with someone from the Serbian security forces who was a Mladic supporter. This person drew him a diagram of where Rakic was sitting during a visit to The Hague. That suggested that serious intelligence was at work, and Rakic had little doubt it was the Russians,” he said.

‘The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt’ by Julian Borger is published by Other Press

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