Request for Reparation of Family Members of Kidnapped Persons from Sjeverin Denied

On 2 April 2009 the First Municipal Court in Belgrade rendered a judgment by which it rejected the compensation lawsuit filed by the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) against the Republic of Serbia on behalf of 25 family members of the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin.

Bosniaks Mehmed Šebo, Zafer Hadžić, Medo Hadžić, Medredin Hodžić, Ramiz Begović, Derviš Softić, Mithat Softić, Mujo Alihodžić, Alija Mandal, Sead Pecikoza, Mustafa Bajramović, Hajrudin Sajtarević, Esad Džihić, Ramahudin Ćatović, Idriz Gibović and Mevlida Koldžić were citizens of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) who lived in the village of Sjeverin, Priboj Municipality. On this critical day, 22 October 1992, they were on their way to Priboj to run some everyday errands. They took a regular bus line (Rudo-Priboj). Near the village of Mioče, this regional road goes through the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

Members of the Osvetnici (Avengers) Unit, under the command of Milan Lukić from Višegrad, stopped the bus, which the residents of Sjeverin were riding. After checking ID cards, they took only Bosniaks, 16 of them, out of the bus. They put them inside a truck and took them to the Višegrad Hotel Vilina Vlas where they first brutally tortured them and then took them to the bank of the Drina River and executed them all. The bodies of the killed have not yet been found.

The Belgrade District Court convicted (in absentia) Milan Lukić and Oliver Krsmanović to 20 years of imprisonment each. It also convicted Dragutin Dragutinović and Đorđe Šević to 15 years of imprisonment each. By the judgement rendered by the Belgrade District Court, which was confirmed by the Serbian Supreme Court, the convicts were presented as members of the Avengers paramilitary unit.  However, there are numerous pieces of evidence and witness statements that unambiguously show that this unit acted as part of the Republic of Srpska Army Višegrad Brigade. For example, certificates showing that the Višegrad Brigade Headquarters issued Milan Lukić with weapons were presented during the trial.

HLC and family members of the kidnapped filed a lawsuit in which they requested that the state pay reparations to the family members of the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin because the state was obliged, due to the well known situation and ethnic conflict in BiH, to either forbid buses to go that way or provide security to its citizens who had to travel through the territory where their lives were jeopardized on daily basis because of their ethnic background. The Court dismissed these allegations and accepted instead the undocumented claims of the state representatives [Office of the Republic Attorney General], that the Ministry of Interior [MUP], pursuant to the then applicable laws, was not obliged to cancel this bus line or provide protection to citizens of the FRY who travelled through unsafe areas on a daily basis.

HLC would like to draw attention to that fact that pursuant to the then applicable legal provisions, MUP had a general duty to protect citizens and it had the right to restrict the movement of citizens if human lives were in danger. There has never been a single law that predicted all specific situations of its application and, therefore, the general duty to provide protection had to be sufficient for MUP to take necessary measures. HLC presented to the court the judgement from a criminal trial conducted for the crime committed against the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin, which shows that the court had determined how unsafe the environment in which Bosniaks from Sjeverin was: “…the presence of men armed in this manner on the territory of Serbia who, moved through the area around the border freely and entered the territory of Serbia and whose presence bred fear among the citizens living in areas close to the border, mainly among citizens of Muslim origin, which was proved by testimonies of many witnesses during the course of the proceedings, who described the feelings they had when they travelled and passed through these areas close to the border in the combating zone.”

The crime in Sjeverin was not the only crime committed in this part of the country. It was preceded by several serious incidents.

In the centre of Sjeverin, during the day of 26 August 1992, Bosniak Ramo Berbo was killed in cold blood. An unidentified soldier killed him in front of several eyewitnesses by firing a bullet in his forehead after Ramo Berbo showed his ID card to him, which revealed that Ramo was a Bosniak.

Furthermore, a day before the kidnapping of 16 residents of Sjeverin occurred, on 21 October, several unidentified persons kidnapped Sabahudin Ćatović in front of his house in Sjeverin. Every trace of him has been lost ever since.

On 6 April 1993, unidentified persons assaulted and kidnapped Hasan Mujović. Every trace of him has been lost ever since.

The police was informed of these events and there is no doubt that it was obliged to take measures to protect the citizens of Sjeverin in line with their duty to protect all citizens.

HLC and family members of the kidnapped also claimed in the lawsuit that state institutions, the Ministry of Defence and MUP in particular, bear a great part of responsibility for the crime committed against their closest family members. From the beginning of the armed conflict in BiH, these state authorities provided weapons and funding for the Republic of Srpska Army. With this regard, HLC presented to the court statements given by witnesses Dobrila Gajić Glišić, B – 24, and B – 179 given in the trial of Slobodan Milošević before the Hague Tribunal, who spoke in detail about the comprehensiveness and the manner in which the then FRY financially and militarily supported the Republic of Srpska Army. Slobodan Milošević’s Appeal on the Investigative Order in a case before the Belgrade District Court contains the following allegation: “As far as the funding spent on weapons, ammunition, and other needs of the Republic of Srpska and the Republic of Srpska Krajina Armies, these expenditures could not be presented as a state secret due to the state interests in the Law on Budget, which is a public document […] just like we did not publicly announce everything that was sent to the Republic of Srpska Army”. During the main hearing, the Court did not take into account this evidence and alleged in the judgement that the other party to the proceedings opposed to the presentation of this evidence and that was the reason why it was necessary for HLC to suggest the examination of these witnesses.

HLC would like to emphasize that the families of the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin have been alone for 17 years in the fight to reveal the truth about their closest family members, without the support of state institutions. Even though they are citizens of Serbia, the family members have never received any form of material support from the state. Furthermore, pursuant to the presently applicable laws prescribing state reparations for family members of civilian victims of war, families of the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin were deprived of any sort of material support because the state does not consider their family members victims of war. Precisely, according to the legal definition a victim is “a person who sustains physical damage of at least 50% because of a wound or injury which left visible traces, inflicted by torture or deprivation of freedom by the enemy during the war, during war operations, from leftover war material or from enemy sabotage, i.e. terrorist acts.”

HLC calls upon the Republic of Serbia institutions to take all necessary legal reforms or start caring in some different way and materially supporting families of the kidnapped residents of Sjeverin, thus treating them equally as other citizens of the Republic of Serbia, who lost close family members during the war.