2017 in Review 25 Dec 17

Serbia: War Criminals Praised, War Trials Delayed

In 2017, Serbian officials heaped praise on a former military chief who was convicted of war crimes in Kosovo, while trials of alleged offenders in Belgrade were interrupted by a series of delays.

Filip Rudic BIRN Belgrade
War criminals Lazarevic and Sainovic with Defence Minister Vulin at gathering of ex-soldiers. Photo: Defence Ministry.

The Serbian authorities in 2017 continued to honour convicted war criminal Vladimir Lazarevic, who was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to the country after being released from prison in 2015.

Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin gave a speech at the gathering of former soldiers of the Third Battalion of the Yugoslav Army in October, where he declared that “the time of shame has passed”, and that time had come to be “quietly proud” of such men.

Lazarevic was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to 14 years in prison for the military campaign in Kosovo which resulted in 11,000 Kosovo Albanians being killed and some 700,000 expelled.

In the audience at the military event was Lazarevic and former deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison over Belgrade’s armed campaign in Kosovo.

Vulin was criticised by the US ambassador in Belgrade, Kyle Scott, but the Serbian minister soon showed he was only getting started.

He reaffirmed his position and rebuffed criticism from Scott, who said that Vulin’s expressions of support for convicted war criminals might undermine efforts to improve Serbia’s image.

Serbian pro-government media then accused Scott of interfering in Serbia's internal affairs, while Vulin called general Lazarevic a “role model” for Serbian troops.

Belgrade also drew criticism in October for inviting Lazarevic, the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army’s Pristina Corps, to give a lecture at the Military Academy in Belgrade.

“We made a rule to make room at the Military Academy for the most prominent commanders from the wars gone by,” Vulin said, adding that the military chiefs had suffered “injustice”.

EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic told BIRN that Serbia had “deviated” from the principles it needs to uphold as a candidate for EU membership by appointing Lazarevic.

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party also hosted Veselin Sljivancanin, who was convicted by the Hague Tribunal of responsibility for the 1991 Vukovar massacre, as a speaker at some of its party events.

Meanwhile after the conviction of Ratko Mladic in November, extreme right-wingers showed their supported for the former Bosnian Serb military chief by putting up posters of him in the Serbian capital, while Red Star Belgrade football fans chanted their support for Mladic and a provincial lower-league Serbian team, FK Kabel, even took to the field with shirts emblazoned with his picture.

Belgrade’s first Srebrenica trial interrupted

 Serbia's new chief war crimes prosecutor Snezana Stanojkovic. Photo: Beta.

After leaving the position of chief war crimes prosecutor vacant for a year and a half, the Serbian parliament elected Snezana Stanojkovic, the former deputy to the prosecutor, to the post in May.

Stanojkovic’s election, however, did not signal a revival of activity for the office, which had been unable to press any new charges while it had no chief prosecutor.

The landmark trial of eight former policemen charged with a massacre of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in the village of Kravica in July 1995 – the first of its kind in Serbia – began in February, but was interrupted because the chief war crimes prosecutor had not been appointed.

The charges were dismissed in July because they were not filed by the authorised prosecutor.

New war crimes prosecutor Stanojkovic filed a motion to continue the trial, but this was rejected. The Appeals Court however reversed the decision in October, allowing the trial to continue.

The eight former members of a Bosnian Serb special police unit stand accused of organising and participating in the shooting of more than 1,300 Bosniak civilians in an agricultural warehouse in the village of Kravica near Srebrenica in July 1995.

Meanwhile other trials in Serbia for war crimes allegedly committed by Serbs in Croatia and Kosovo were also set back by delays.

Serbia’s Humanitarian Law Centre NGO accused two hospitals operated by the army of delaying trials by certifying that the defendants cannot attend hearings because of health concerns. Belgrade’s Military Medical Academy rejected the allegation.

Since Stanojkovic took office, she has tried to avoid the media, but information from the prosecutor’s office can still be gained through freedom of information requests.

This was how BIRN found out in November that the war crimes prosecution has ended its investigation into retired Yugoslav Army general Dragan Zivanovic, shutting down the only known probe of a top official in Serbia for Kosovo war crimes.

Zivanovic, who during the Kosovo war was a commander of the Yugoslav Army’s 125th Motorised Brigade, had been under investigation since August 2014.

Before Stanojkovic’s appointment, the programme she proposed to enforce if given the post hinted that crimes committed against Serbs - rather than by them - would be her priority.

Most of the programme that she submitted as a candidate for the job focused on Serbian victims and on ending a perceived impunity for crimes against Serbs.

Vojislav Seselj ‘sleeps through’ his appeal

Vojislav Seselj. Photo: Sasa Djordjevic/Beta.

The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which took over the unfinished business of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia after it closed this month, has said that the final verdict in the trial of the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, will be delivered in the first half of 2018.

But hardline nationalist Seselj has continued to show no interest in his own trial, and has refused to return to The Hague to attend the hearings since he was freed from custody for cancer treatment in 2014.

He scorned the prosecution’s December appeal against his war crimes acquittal at the UN court, saying didn’t watch it because he was asleep.

Seselj also said he would not file a written response countering the arguments of the prosecutor, who asked for a retrial or a 28-year sentence.

“Justice is not served… If this verdict stands, it would not only be an insult to victims, but would undermine this court,” prosecutor Mathias Marcussen said on December 13.

In the first-instance verdict in 2016, Seselj was acquitted of the persecution of non-Serbs on political, racial and religious grounds, deportation and forcible resettlement, as well as crimes against humanity.

Seselj has meanwhile mocked the Hague court and dared the Belgrade authorities to send him back by force.

“They can only take me to The Hague if they put me in chains,” Seselj told Serbian news website Telegraf.rs.

Defendants in journalist’s murder trial released

Slavko Curuvija. Photo: Slavko Curuvija Foundation.

The Serbian court in July released from custody two former State Security officers charged with participating in the 1999 murder of opposition journalist Slavko Curuvija.

The court decided to place Milan Radonjic and Ratko Romic under house arrest because of the length of time they have spent in custody so far.

Curuvija family lawyer Slobodan Ruzic said that the defendants had been kept behind bars for a long time and that he was not surprised by the decision, however.

Also in July, the second phase in the trial began, as witnesses for the defence started to take the stand.

Journalist and editor Curuvija was gunned down outside his apartment in Belgrade on April 11, 1999 because of his opposition to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, his family believe.

According to the indictment, an ‘unknown person’ ordered the killing, and Radomir Markovic, the former head of Serbian State Security, abetted the crime, while three former security service officers - Ratko Romic, Milan Radonjic and Miroslav Kurak - took part in the organisation and execution of the murder.

Kurak was the direct perpetrator, while Romic was his accomplice, it is alleged.
Three of the suspects have pleaded not guilty, while Kurak is on the run and is being tried in absentia.

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