Mutiny in Serbia: How a State Security Unit’s Rebellion Went Unpunished

Members of the Special Operations Unit block a highway near Vrbas in Serbia during the mutiny in November 2001. Photo: EPA/STR/SS-BW.

Mutiny in Serbia: How a State Security Unit’s Rebellion Went Unpunished

10. November 2021.09:46
10. November 2021.09:46
In November 2001, the Serbian State Security Service’s Special Operations Unit staged a mutiny and set up roadblocks. The failure to punish the instigators of the armed revolt would have deadly consequences for the country’s prime minister.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

By that time, the situation at the JSO headquarters was tense: commander Dusan ‘Gumar’ Maricic gathered his assistants together and told them that he had decided that the unit was going into “protest” mode and ordered all its officers to return to Kula in northern Serbia, and to remain there. JSO members abandoned their duties as bodyguards for officials or as security staff at official buildings and went back to their HQ.

This was the beginning of what soon became known as the JSO mutiny, which saw the unit blocking main roads in two cities in Serbia, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, and urging the adoption of new legislation to regulate Serbia’s dealings with the UN war crimes court in The Hague.

Slobodan Milosevic’s regime had been ousted in a mass uprising the previous year, and the new government led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic had started to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal, angering nationalists in the country. Milosevic had already been detained and sent to stand trial. The JSO said it had decided to take action because it had been forced to arrest two brothers who were wanted for war crimes by the UN court.

The mutiny continued from November 9 until November 17, and ended with the resignations of State Security chief Goran Petrovic and his deputy Zoran Mijatovic. Interior Minister Mihajlovic also offered to quit but his resignation was rejected by the government. The JSO was moved out of the State Security Service’s control.

Sixteen months later, Prime Minister Djindjic was assassinated in a plot instigated by members of the JSO and the Zemun Clan, a powerful criminal gang.

Some of the participants in the JSO mutiny were involved in Djindjic’s assassination in March 2003, including the man who pulled the trigger, Zvezdan Jovanovic.

Jovanovic had been indicted for the mutiny alongside JSO members Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek, Veselin Lecic, Mico Petrakovic, Dragoslav Krsmanovic, Dragisa Radic and Vladimir Potic. Most of them admitted that they had been involved, but they were all acquitted.

Manhunt for wanted twins

Bosnian Serb twins Predrag (left) and Nenad Banovic (right) at their first appearance at the Hague Tribunal, November 2001. Photo: EPA/AP POOL/FRED ERNST.

In July 1998, a vehicle carrying elite special forces troops from the British Army’s Special Air Service stopped in a central street in the Bosnian city of Prijedor. A couple of SAS officers got out, grabbed two men, put them in the vehicle and drove off. The two men, twin brothers Miroslav and Milan Vuckovic, were then put on a plane and transferred to the UN detention centre in The Hague.

However, they were arrested by mistake – the twin brothers who were actually wanted for arrest by the Hague war crimes tribunal were Predrag and Nenad Banovic.

Before the war, Predrag Banovic worked as a waiter in Prijedor, his home town. From June 20 to August 6, 1992, he was a guard at the Keraterm prison camp, near Prijedor, one of the most notorious of the prison camps set up to hold Bosniaks and Croats who had been captured by Bosnian Serb forces. Banovic was 23 years old at the time.

According to the verdict in his case, “authorities in the camp, as well as ‘visitors’, regularly subjected detainees to severe beatings, cruel and degrading treatment, and many detainees were killed”.

When in 2003, Predrag Banovic decided to plead guilty, he accepted he was responsible for participating in five murders, beating 25 detainees and shooting two others.

After the mistaken arrest of Miroslav and Milan Vuckovic, the Banovic brothers fled Prijedor and, as in many similar cases, found safe haven in Serbia. By 2001, Predrag Banovic was married and had a three-year-old child.

The failed swoop by the SAS and Britain’s MI6 intelligence service is described in the book The Butcher’s Trail by journalist Julian Borger, who is now world affairs editor at The Guardian newspaper.

“The mess-up in 1998 was the source of great embarrassment to MI6, so my understanding is that [they] sort of redoubled their determination to find the Banovic twins who got away from them in Prijedor,” Borger told BIRN.

“This was, for MI6, a question of redemption,” he added.

MI6 located the Banovic brothers in Serbia, and they were arrested on November 8, 2001. The next day, they were transferred to the Hague Tribunal.

Borger explained that MI6 had been in contact with Prime Minister Djindjic and put pressure on him to detain the brothers. Djindjic chose the JSO for the task because “he couldn’t trust anyone else”. However, Borger added, this meant that “indirectly, the mess-up in Prijedor three years earlier contributed to Djindjic’s downfall”.

Nenad Banovic was released in April 2002 after the charges against him were withdrawn due to lack of evidence. Predrag Banovic initially pleaded not guilty but then changed his plea, admitted guilt and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Suspicions about unit’s motives

Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek (first row) and Zvezdan Jovanovic (behind Ulemek) during their trial for Zoran Djindjic’s assassination in Belgrade, May 2004. Photo: EPA/SRDJAN SUKI.

The Serbian State Security Service set up its special armed unit in 1991, at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars, and it operated in most of the conflict zones in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina under a variety of names. Its members became known as the Red Berets because of their distinctive headwear, or Frenki’s Men, a reference to their boss, Franko ‘Frenki’ Simatovic.

In June 2021, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague sentenced Serbian State Security chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Simatovic to 12 years in prison each for aiding and abetting crimes committed by the unit in the Bosanski Samac area during the Bosnian war in 1992. None of the JSO’s members were indicted for war crimes individually, however.

Back home in Serbia, organised crime and politics had become intertwined in the 1990s war years under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The JSO developed close links with the Zemun Clan, the most notorious criminal gang in the country at the time. Together or separately, JSO and Zemun Clan members were involved in political murders, abductions and various other crimes.

But when mass protests toppled Milosevic in 2000, the JSO did not intervene to help him because the unit’s leader, Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek, had made a deal with the opposition. Nevertheless, the JSO’s criminal connections continued after Milosevic was ousted and a democratic government headed by Djindjic came to office in Belgrade.

So when the JSO members said that the Banovic brothers’ arrest was the reason for their mutiny, there were suspicions among the public that there could be something more behind it. During the trial, however, the court ruled that the JSO men’s discontent about the arrests of the Banovic brothers was the reason why they mutinied.

All the accused said they were angry because they were “misused” to detain the brothers, an incident that some of the JSO men even described as “abduction”. They also claimed they did not know in advance who they had been sent to arrest.

But the head of Serbian State Security at the time, Goran Petrovic, testified that the order for the arrests was discussed at a meeting at State Security headquarters, which JSO members attended along with officers from State Security’s Belgrade centre.

Petrovic insisted that the JSO members were told that the Banovic twins were wanted by the Hague Tribunal and that “one of those two brothers brutally beat people to death in prison”, according to the verdict in the trial.

The court, however, believed the testimonies of defendants Maricic, Jovanovic and Lecic, as well as one Belgrade centre operative and another JSO member who was at the meeting – all of whom claimed that they were not told the identities of the targets for arrest.

PM unsure of police support

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica (left) and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic (right), in Belgrade, May 2001. Photo: EPA/KOCA SULEJMANOVIC/BW.

In December 2001, Djindjic said that the situation had been dangerous, but tried to downplay the JSO’s culpability. He praised the unit’s activities in helping to combat a separatist uprising in southern Serbia by the ethnic Albanians of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, and said that the JSO had “credit with me”.

“That incident that caused [the JSO’s mutiny] – or perhaps it was an excuse, I don’t know if it was the real reason – is that they arrested two people suspected by The Hague without being told what they were doing,” Djindjic said in a televised interview.

“The force that was used was inappropriate – 15 armed people arrested two unarmed people, and they did it in broad daylight at a market, which was inappropriate,” he added, appearing to back the JSO’s gripes about the arrest of the Banovic brothers.

Djindjic had already said something similar at a government session in November, and his public statements were used as arguments by Belgrade Higher Court in 2018 to support its finding that the JSO’s mutiny was not an armed rebellion.

The court also noted that Djindjic’s government “never prosecuted [the unit] or characterised such behaviour as an armed rebellion, and the accused here, members of the Special Operations Unit, were not even disciplined”.

The court further argued that “the government of Serbia did not declare a state of emergency, which would be a logical consequence if it was an armed rebellion”.

One of Djindjic’s closest allies in parliament at that time, Cedomir Jovanovic, tried to explain to the court why the government reacted so weakly to the challenge to its authority.

Jovanovic argued that Djindjic could not stand up in front of his government and say that “he did not control the Interior Ministry, that he did not control the State Security Department” and that he was being undermined by the country’s president, because this would raise the question of “who in this country would still see any serious political authority in him”.

At the time, it was not clear if any other police unit would have agreed to act against the JSO if Djindjic had decided to move against the mutineers.

The other armed organisation which could in theory have acted against the JSO was the Yugoslav Army, which at the time was under control of Yugoslavia’s president, Vojislav Kostunica.

Although Djindjic and Kostunica, together with 16 other political leaders, had led the Democratic Opposition of Serbia alliance to victory against Slobodan Milosevic the previous year, it had become clear by 2001 that the gap between them was large.

At a press conference on November 11, Kostunica played down the mutiny, comparing the armed and uniformed JSO members who were blocking roads to doctors protesting in their uniforms. This made it seem unlikely that he would send troops to intervene against the JSO.

The indictment in the trial for the subsequent assassination of Djindjic described the November 2001 mutiny as the “first test” of JSO commander Milorad ‘Legija’ Ulemek and Zemun Clan leader Dusan Spasojevic’s ambitions to undermine the pro-Western prime minister’s democratic government.

Srdja Popovic, the now-deceased former lawyer for Djinjdic’s mother and sister, said in 2008 that the prosecutor explained the motives for the mutiny very clearly in his indictment.

“He assessed the rebellion as an attack on the constitutional order, and that it had the goal of overthrowing the government, and that the success of the uprising encouraged the participants to continue towards the same goal – meaning this attack on the constitutional order – but in a different way,” Popovic told TV B92’s ‘Insajder’ programme in 2008.

The mutiny, he concluded, could be seen as the “the first phase of the overthrow of the government” – which as it went unpunished, eventually led to the killing of Djindjic 16 months later.

Timeline of a mutiny

November 7: JSO members Zvezdan Jovanovic, Veselin Lecic, Dusko Maricic went to a meeting with representatives of State Security’s Belgrade centre about a planned arrest.

November 8: The Banovic brothers are arrested at a market in Obrenovac, a municipality of Belgrade.

November 9: JSO commander Dusko Maricic calls State Security chief Goran Petrovic to ask him to come to Kula, but Petrovic refuses. Maricic sent fax to both Petrovic and Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic that the unit refuses to obey orders. JSO withdraw their members from officials’ security details. In the evening, JSO member Vladimir Potic read the unit’s demands at a press conference in Kula. He wears a tag with name ‘M. Batic’.

November 10: JSO members block a road near Vrbas in northern Serbia, wearing uniforms, carrying weapons and using military vehicles. The blockade lasts two hours. The government announces that the protest is over. Vladimir Potic reads a second JSO press release, this time wearing the nametag ‘D. Mihajlovic’.

November 11: Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic came back from an official visit to the US. After meeting the interior minister, state security chief and police officials and after realising that there is no police force that will tackle the JSO, he goes to the unit’s headquarters in Kula for negotiations, taking his ally Cedomir Jovanovic with him.

November 12: Uniformed and armed JSO members block the Belgrade-Zagreb highway in the capital, one of the busiest street in the city in the early morning.

November 13: Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic goes to Kula to try to negotiate, as his resignation is one of the JSO’s demands. He writes his resignation on a piece of paper and is supposed to read it at a press conference, but Cedomir Jovanovic meets him and tears it up. Mihajlovic holds a press conference to announce he will submit his resignation to Djindjic the following day.

November 14: The Serbian government accepts the resignations of State Security chief Goran Petrovic and his deputy Zoran Mijatovic, but rejects the resignation of Interior Minister Mihajlovic. It decides to transfer authority over the JSO from State Security to the Public Security Service, which is also part of the Interior Ministry.

November 15: Vladimir Potic reads a third JSO press release, denying that any deal has been reached and insisting that there will be no compromise.

November 17: The Interior Ministry announces that what it describes as the JSO’s “protest” is over.

Milica Stojanović

This post is also available in: Bosnian