Natasa Kandic: Serbia’s Bloodstained Army Boss Must Go

Marija Ristic, BIRN, Belgrade

10 February 2012

The denunciations of the Humanitarian Law Centre’s report on the head of the Serbian army reveal the strength of Milosevic’s ideology in Serbia today and the politicisation of the war crimes office.

The latest report by the Humanitarian Law Centre on the wartime past of the current head of the Serbian Army, Ljubisa Dikovic, has drawn an angry response from experts and government ministers.

The report blamed numerous war crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999 on the then commander of the Motorised Brigade of the Yugoslav Army, JNA, today’s head of the Serbian Army.

The Humanitarian Law Centre maintains that an officer with such a stained record is not an appropriate head of the Serbian Army, as he clearly lacks the professional and ethical potential to help restore trust in the Serbian Army regionally and internationally.

But the Ministry of Defence and General Dikovic have denounced the report as a vicious attempt to smear the Army’s reputation, while Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecution Office has dismissed the evidence against Dikovic as groundless.

Q: Since the Humanitarian Law Centre released its file, there has been speculation about the relevance and authenticity of the evidence. What is the actual evidence?

A: The file is based on exhibits of the Hague Tribunal presented in the Milutinovic, Lazarevic and Vlastimir Djordjevic trials. We also used public documents of the JNA, which are available on the Tribunal’s website. The report is also based on our own documentation, which is extensive when it comes to Kosovo, because we have 20 years of work behind us on cases there. There are also depositions from witnesses who describe how certain mass executions happened. Some [of the witnesses] are army and state top insiders and others are war-crime victims. We will come forward today with a supplement to the file on Dikovic, releasing additional documents that further confirm our claims, and on that basis we believe there will now be sufficient material to seek re-examination of his responsibility.

Q: In his statement, Dikovic said the claims represent an attack on the Army’s reputation, while Defence Minister Sutanovac, called the claims monstrous and announced a lawsuit. What is your reaction?

A: I was astonished by the sheer number of tactless statements coming from Sutanovac. He called the report false because he recognises only one file, and that’s the personal file held in the Ministry of Defence, so for him it is inadmissible that someone else is releasing files elsewhere. He called the file monstrous, because, he says, the head of the army is being accused, and thus, all the officers and senior staff beneath him as well, since he holds the highest position. That shows enormous lack of understanding but also shows the extent of confusion in the heads of people who represent our institutions. I am also astonished by the assessment that the release of information related to Dikovic represents an attack on the state. That kind of rhetoric has not been heard since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and we’re hear this from none other than Minister Sutanovac who has suddenly revealed his face and showed us who he is. This has been the strongest defence of the Milosevic system made so far, and I’d say Sutanovac was not even aware he was doing it.

On the other hand, Dikovic waited to see what his minister would say, and when the minister said the attack on the general was an attack on the state, the army and on all the institutions, then the General repeated all this. I regret what’s happened here; suddenly it’s become very clear what so-called democratic power is like, and that they are too prone to abuse that power. He [Sutanovac] has presented himself as an ideological priest who knows what is true and what is not – and everything that is not in line with what he thinks is true is an attack on the state, the army, the institutions.

Q: The army and ministry say it can be proven that Dikovic was not present at the location that you quote in your report. Can you prove the opposite?

A: First, they say that Dikovic was not in Bajina Basta. We found this bit of information in their own magazine, called Army, from 1999, which says he was decorated and promoted to major in 1994 while commanding the 16th Border Battalion in Bajina Basta for his achievements in defending his homeland from extreme Muslims. Why should we check it further if it says so in their official magazine? They say, yes, but he was not there in 1995, he was away on training. We know from many other officers that if someone goes on training, and it’s always for a briefer period than a school year, he does not have to be relieved of his post. We have information that he kept his position in the 16th Border Battalion. When it comes to 1999, we used all the documents available to the Hague Tribunal and our own documentation.

Today we have released a new document containing a regular report from the 37th Brigade, which says that this unit’s combat troops went to Point 692 in the area between the two villages in Kosovo. When we looked at an army map to see what 692 was, which is also available on the Hague Tribunal’s site, we saw it was the village of Vragodol. From our own documentation we found witnesses from these villages who survived these events. The Army first surrounded a group of Albanians in the woods and immediately killed two men, a father and son, and a woman. Then the soldiers took the [rest of the] group in the direction of Istrica and stopped in a field, which the victims identified as the Vragodol field. Sometime later we established on the army map that the Vragodol field is in fact called Point 692 in the report by the 37th Motorised Brigade. Naturally, the report of the 37th Motorised Brigade did not mention anything about the crime committed there. After the release of this document, we expect both the Defence Minister and head of the Army to explain what happened there, since General Dikovic in his testimony in 2007, as a defence witness for indictee Lazarevic, said he had orders to send combat troops by the same route at the time that the crime was committed.

Q: After your report, the War Crimes Prosecutor has stated that General Dikovic is innocent and that the Hague Tribunal would have indicted him had that [the claims in the report] been true. Why the prosecution did not indict him if the evidence exists?

A: It is very unprofessional conduct by the War Crimes Prosecutor. This was a political stance, a defence of political allies. Something like this should be inadmissible for the War Crimes Prosecution. [Bruno] Vekaric said in public that they always check indictments with two clicks. The claim is irresponsible that The Hague would have already indicted him had there been indications of Dikovic’s responsibility. Even a layman knows the Tribunal has a limited time frame for its work, that it went after the highest representatives of the army, police and authorities – and relied on all the collected evidence as a help to local judiciaries in processing the mid- and lower levels of police, army and civilian officials.

Absolutely nothing is true in those statements. These are just arbitrary statements. This proves that the prosecution is not a professional and independent institution in the sense that no one can influence its work. This means that they received an assignment to immediately come forward and were told exactly what to say.

Q: Dikovic has also said that you are actually deepening hatred in the region and you want this territory to be a constant source of instability. You say that you fight for the opposite. Who is right?

A: The fact that he was appointed head of the army can be, and is, causing difficulties when it comes to rebuilding trust in the institutions of Republic of Serbia. Back when Dikovic was appointed head of the army, there were reactions in Kosovo, because they knew he held a high position during the war in Kosovo. The appointment of officers who do not have a clean past, about whom it can be proven that grave war crimes happened in their areas of responsibility and the fact that no indictments were brought by the authorities – all that is not in the interest of reconciliation and regional cooperation.

Serbia can win a lot more trust and its gesture would be welcomed if Dikovic answered for his past. He has participated in a criminal policy by keeping silent and by not preventing crimes that happened again and again. There would be progress towards reconciliation if the President [Boris Tadic] annulled this appointment with an explanation that by not so acting he would be protecting the bad policies of the 1990s. If he [the general] were dismissed, Serbia could improve its reputation and contribute to the speedier restoration of trust in Serbia’s institutions.