After three-and-a-half years in custody in Serbia and a ten-year legal struggle against charges of ordering an attack on retreating Yugoslav troops in Tuzla in 1992, Bosnian ex-policeman Ilija Jurisic recalls how he cleared his name.
Back in 1992, Ilija Jurisic had already retired from his job as a police officer, but as hostilities began in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he received a mobilisation call-up from the municipality of Tuzla and became an adviser to the chief of the Public Security Station, the main police station in the eastern Bosnian town.
Soon afterwards, an outbreak of violence would change the course of Jurisic’s life.
On May 15, 1992, Yugoslav People’s Army forces in Tuzla were pulling out of their barracks in Husinsko Brdo in Tuzla and heading towards Bijeljina, which was under Serb control, when there was an exchange of fire with local Territorial Defence and police forces at the Brcanska Malta crossroads.
At Jurisic’s trial several years later in Belgrade, prosecutors claimed that Yugoslav People’s Army and Bosnian representatives had agreed that the army could withdraw from its barracks without being attacked, but the Bosnian side broke the deal and opened fire. Around 50 retreating soldiers were killed, according to the Belgrade court.
Jurisic was on duty at the time of the incident: “In the afternoon I received an announcement over the radio that the army was shooting at police officers, who were sent there to ensure their peaceful exit [from Tuzla], and there were casualties. The chief made a decision to fight fire with fire,” he recalled.
He insists that this was a defensive return of fire, but Serbia regarded the incident as a war crime, as Jurisic would find out more than a decade later.
After the war, he remained in Tuzla and moved around freely until May 2007, when he was detained at Belgrade airport when he was leaving for Germany to visit his son.
“A policeman came out of his office and told me to come with him. When we went down to the ground floor, I was surprised to see so many policemen in the corridor. The policeman from the first floor handed me over to his colleagues. Another one grabbed me by my hands and pushed me into a dark room… I sat down on the floor,” he said.
Due to the stress of the situation, Jurisic’s blood sugar level dropped suddenly and he began calling for water, but only got derision in return. “All I could hear was cynical laugh in front of the door, mocking and insulting me,” he said.
Some time later, he saw a light and then his younger son at the cell door, bringing him a bag with his medication in it. “I took that medication and thought the mess was over, but my suffering continued,” he recalled.
He was transported to Serbia’s Security and Information Agency in a police van, “flipping and rolling around in the vehicle like a watermelon in a car trunk”, ending up with a wound on his head and bruised elbows.
He was then taken to Belgrade Central Prison, where he was given a piece of paper with a description of crimes of which he was suspected, along with a blanket, a rusty spoon and a portion of food.
“When they opened the cell, I saw a few other people, but I did not know any of them. Later on I found out they were Ovcara crimes detainees [suspects accused of killing Croats after the fall of Vukovar to Belgrade’s forces in 1991], members of the Zemun Clan [Serbia’s most notorious criminal gang] and cigarette smugglers,” Jurisic said.
He believes that his cellmates already knew he was the ‘Tuzla Column’ suspect. “They looked at me menacingly, they did not approach me, but they insulted me verbally, they cursed my parents, my state, my nation and everything, I don’t want to name all those things. I understood the severity of the situation and I thought that was the end of my life,” he said.
When his photograph and information about his arrest appeared on TV in the prison, other prisoners “looked daggers” at him, he added.
His trial eventually began in February 2009. “I said I understood the indictment, but I did not accept any of those allegations because they had nothing to do with my behaviour. I said I lived by a maxim written by our [Tuzla-born] writer Mesa Selimovic, who said: ‘Killing one man means killing the whole world,’” Jurisic recalled.
At an early stage of his trial, he says he realised that the indictment was not based on proper evidence because it was prepared prior to the completion of the investigation.
Nevertheless, during the trial there were some difficult moments, and Jurisic said that he even considered taking his own life. But he said his younger son helped him to resist the impulse, telling him: “They are looking forward to that. Muster the courage to resist and defend yourself.”
In 2009, the court sentenced Jurisic to 12 years in prison for ‘improper battlefield conduct’, but the appeals court quashed this ruling the following year, and sent the case for a retrial. The appeals court also released him from custody after three-and-a-half year behind bars.
Although legally he did not have to return to Serbia for the retrial, Jurisic decided that he wanted to complete the process.
“I firmly believed I could prove my innocence, but I could only do it in court. In which court? In the same court where my name was dishonoured in the first place,” he explained.
In 2013, Belgrade’s special court ruled for a second time that Jurisic was guilty because he issued an order to attack the convoy, despite an agreement to allow the Yugoslav troops to peacefully withdraw.
But in the final verdict, the appeals court ruled in March 2016 that there was no evidence to prove that Jurisic ordered the attack.
Jurisic held a press conference to welcome his acquittal: “Finally it happened, what I believed throughout my whole life – that the truth is the best tool for proving innocence,” he said at the time.
During his time in custody, several demonstrations of support were organised for him in Tuzla, attended by hundreds of locals, the town’s mayor and a local MP. He also received vital support from the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Foundation, an NGO in Tuzla that was established primarily to help his defence.
“I would have never been able to win if I had not had the huge help from citizens of Tuzla, unlike the institutions of both the Federation [entity] and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which failed to help me,” Jurisic said.
“A gorgeous welcome was organised for me in Tuzla. It was so moving. I am so emotional now that I cannot speak about it,” he added.
Jurisic has since gone on to sue Serbia, saying that he endured mental suffering and a rapid deterioration of his health as a result of spending three-and-a-half years in custody over a crime he was later acquitted of committing.
But having his innocence proclaimed was the most important thing for him, more than 20 years after the firefight at the Brcanska Malta crossroads in Tuzla.
“Today I am glad because I was not convicted and the crime that was blamed on me has not been proved,” Jurisic said. “But what I like most is the fact that I can stand up in front of my fellow citizens and neighbours with my good name cleared.”