Serbia: A Year of Denying War Crimes

Serbia: A Year of Denying War Crimes
BalkanInsight_logoWar criminals were celebrated, verdicts convicting Serbs were questioned and atrocities were denied, while Serbian prosecutors again failed in 2019 to indict any high-ranking suspects for crimes committed in the 1990s conflicts.

On May 9, retired Yugoslav Army general Vladimir Lazarevic, a convicted war criminal, headed a World War II Victory Day parade through the streets of the southern Serbian city of Nis. The showpiece event was organised by Russian war veterans with the backing of the Serbian authorities.

Lazarevic’s prominent role in the parade highlighted how in 2019, Serbian officials continued their practice of celebrating war criminals as military heroes.

In October, Nebojsa Pavkovic, a former senior Yugoslav Army officer who was convicted alongside Lazarevic and is still serving his prison sentence, had his new book published by the Serbian Defence Ministry’s Ratnik (Warrior) imprint. The ministry then promoted it at the Belgrade Book Fair.

“The memoirs of General Nebojsa Pavkovic, as well as other commanders and fighters published in the Ratnik edition, contribute in many ways to the truth about the fight during the NATO aggression [bombing of Yugoslavia]. We don’t see any reason to be ashamed of our people’s struggle and those who led that fight,” the Defence Ministry said.

The Hague Tribunal ruled in January 2014 that Pavkovic and Lazarevic, along with former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic and former Serbian police general Sreten Lukic, were guilty of the murder, deportation and inhumane treatment of Kosovo Albanians during the war in 1999.

The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre NGO accused the Defence Ministry of “openly mocking the victims of crime” and denying facts established by the UN war crimes court in The Hague.

The Defence Ministry was involved again when another controversial book was launched in November at the Central Military Club in Belgrade.

This time it was a book denying that Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for shelling the Bosnian town of Tuzla in May 1995, killing 71 people. The book claimed the town was not shelled, but that the massacre was staged using a pre-planted explosive device.

Former Bosnian Serb general Novak Djukic was convicted in Bosnia of ordering the attack, but left the country for Serbia, where he remains at liberty.

The Bosnian authorities have asked Serbia to take over the enforcement of Djukic’s sentence under a legal cooperation agreement between the two countries, but the proceedings in Belgrade have been repeatedly delayed due to the defendant’s medical problems. The case has now been at the Belgrade court for more than four years.

Handke’s Nobel revives Milosevic memories

The year 2019 will be remembered for another literature-related controversy connected to Serbia, although it happened outside the country.

Austrian writer Peter Handke, who was a supporter of Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s wars and even gave a speech at the Serbian leader’s funeral when he died during his war crimes trial, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Nobel committee’s controversial decision sparked protests in Bosnia, where war victims accused him of supporting the Bosnian Serb military and downplaying crimes like the Srebrenica genocide. There were also angry reactions from journalists who covered the Bosnian war, and four Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo – boycotted the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm in December.

However, Handke was praised by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who was once the information minister in Milosevic’s government.

Vucic said in a message published on the presidential website to congratulate Handke that “Serbia regards you as a true friend”, praising what he said were the author’s “unrivalled moral qualities”.

Vucic waded into another controversy in December when he claimed that the Recak/Racak massacre in January 1999, in which Serbian forces killed 45 Kosovo Albanians, was fabricated by the former head of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, William Walker.

Walker’s involvement in publicising the massacre was a factor in NATO’s subsequent decision to bomb Yugoslavia in order to make Milosevic’s forces end their military campaign in Kosovo.

Vucic spoke out after a court in Pristina convicted Kosovo Serb MP Ivan Todosijevic of incitement to ethnic, racial or religious intolerance for claiming that the massacre was staged.

No major indictments issued

On the face of it, the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office and Belgrade Higher Court’s special department for war crimes were busy in 2019. However, the superficial impression didn’t bear deeper scrutiny: the vast majority of cases were relatively small, involving one or two suspects.

During 2019, there was no indictment for larger-scale crimes, while the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office indicted or started investigations into low-level suspects for crimes committed against Serbs in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, the trial of five former Bosnian Serb fighters, accused of abducting 20 non-Serb passengers from a train in Strpci in eastern Bosnia in 1993 and then killing them, did open in Belgrade this year. All five defendants pleaded not guilty.

By the end of the year, the court had heard testimony from victims’ relatives, other passengers, railway staff and a couple of former Bosnian Serb Army soldiers. One told the court about how the passengers were seized from the train, while the other spoke about how he took the victims’ bodies to the Drina riverbank after they were massacred.

Meanwhile a retrial in another important case ended in June with the court finding eight former members of the Serbian police, Yugoslav People’s Army and paramilitary units guilty of killing 28 civilians in the Croatian village of Lovas in 1991, and sentenced them to a total of 47 years in prison. An appeal is possible.

In two other war crimes cases, the Belgrade Appeals Court reduced the sentences handed down to Serb defendants although it upheld their convictions.

In the case of the Sima’s Chetniks paramilitary group, two of the group’s members, Tomislav Gavric and Zoran Djurdjevic, had their sentences reduced from ten to eight years in prison, while a third member, Zoran Alic, was given five instead of six years. They were convicted of keeping three women captive in the village of Malesic in 1992, where they repeatedly raped and abused them and forced them to make food and clean for them.

Former Bosnian Serb Army soldier Ranka Tomic, who was convicted of involvement in the torture and murder of a Bosnian Army nurse during the war in 1992, also had her jail sentence reduced from five to three years on appeal.

Besides war crimes cases, the Belgrade Appeals Court ruled in two other high-profile cases from Serbia’s turbulent post-war years.

It confirmed the acquittal of the former commander of Serbian State Security’s now-disbanded Special Operations Unit, Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek, along with six other people, of involvement in an armed uprising in 2001. However, Ulemek is still serving a prison sentence for his role in the murder of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

The court also acquitted seven people of trying to set fire to the US embassy in Belgrade in 2008 in a protest against Washington’s support for Kosovo’s declaration of independence that year.