Hague Archives Reveal Suspects in Bosnian Croat Prison Camp Crimes

Zatvorenici iz hercegovačkih logora nakon puštanja 1993. godine. Foto: Nermin Malović

Hague Archives Reveal Suspects in Bosnian Croat Prison Camp Crimes

12. October 2022.09:18
12. October 2022.09:18
Almost three decades after the last prisoners left the notorious Dretelj detention camp, several Bosnian Croat military policemen and security officers named in a Hague Tribunal verdict who could be suspects in the abuse and deaths of inmates have never been charged.

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“So far, five detainees have died in the prison: three were killed while pushing at the outer doors and the two others died of natural causes, most probably a heart attack,” said the report sent to Coric, who was later jailed by the Hague Tribunal for war crimes committed at the Dretelj detention camp and other offences.

Dretelj was a former Yugoslav People’s Army barracks that became one of the most notorious detention sites in the Herzegovina region, established by Herzeg-Bosnia’s military force, the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in 1993.

The Hague Tribunal verdict convicting Valentin Coric and five other Herzeg-Bosnia military and political officials of wartime crimes stated that six people were killed or passed away at the Dretelj detention camp. The last detainees left the facility 29 years ago, in October 1993.

Of the six deaths at Dretelj, one was particularly unpleasant – a prisoner identified only by his surname Plavuskic died of dehydration on July 16, 1993, according to one witness at the Herzeg-Bosnia trial at the Hague Tribunal, nurse Denis Saric.

Asked by BIRN if he knew that one inmate died of dehydration, Tucak said he was not aware of it. He said he remembers one person dying but not what caused the death. He insisted that he “never touched anyone” at the detention camp.

In a report to his superior Coric, Tucak wrote that detainees were receiving rations of water and food. He told BIRN that the amounts given to detainees were those specified by the regulations for inmates and prison staff. “I went round, I looked. Where there was water, I saw they had water, that food was being cooked and distributed within the complex,” he said. However, he admitted: “It was summertime and I didn’t enter the premises.”

EnlargePhoto from air of Dretelj used in ICTY.

The Dretelj camp held Bosnian Army troops, HVO soldiers who were Bosniaks, and male civilian Bosniaks of military age. Tucak told Coric in one report that there were 2,270 detainees at the camp and that there was an urgent need to increase the number of military policemen guarding the facility.

Despite the references to him in the trial of the six Herzeg-Bosnia military and political officials, Tucak has never been indicted in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He is one of at least eight people connected to Dretelj who have not been prosecuted for the deaths and abuses at the detention camp even though they are mentioned in the Hague Tribunal’s verdict in the Herzeg-Bosnia trial.
Two of these potential suspects are believed to have died, two have been indicted but can’t be brought to court in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one’s case has been taken over by the Croatian judicial authorities, and three others have never been charged.

For this investigation, BIRN analysed the Herzeg-Bosnia verdict and documents used in the Hague case in order to identify those who signed official reports about the conditions at the camp and about the murders of detainees, and spoke to two potential suspects who have never been tried.

Prisoners shot through a window

Prisoners after their release from a detention camp in the Herzegovina area. Photo by Nermin Malovic

Prisoners after their release from a detention camp in the Herzegovina area. Photo by Nermin Malovic

Prisoners after their release from a detention camp in the Herzegovina area. Photo by Nermin Malovic

Prisoners after their release from a detention camp in the Herzegovina area. Photo by Nermin Malovic

One of the potential suspects who is unavailable to the Bosnian judiciary as he is no longer in the country is Nedjeljko Obradovic, the commander of the HVO’s Knez Domagoj First Brigade.

The Hague court determined that prisoner Plavuskic died of dehydration because HVO soldiers deprived the detainees of water and food on Obradovic’s orders.

The Bosnian state prosecution told BIRN that Croatia has taken over the prosecution of Obradovic and that a year ago, the Croatian judiciary launched an investigation into war crimes committed in several cities and villages in the Herzegovina region.

Another potential suspect in the death by dehydration of prisoner Plavuskic is the man believed by the Hague court to have been the manager of the Dretelj camp, Ivan Ancic, who is also unavailable to the Bosnian judiciary.
Ancic, who lives in Croatia, was initially charged with war crimes by the Bosnian authorities. Croatia was then asked to take over the prosecution of Ancic in July 2019, but no reply to the request had been received by the Bosnian prosecution by the beginning of September this year.

The Herzeg-Bosnia verdict noted that as well as being responsible for Plavuskic’s death, HVO members, including military policemen, caused the death of five more detained Bosniaks – Omer Kohnic, Emir Repak, Hasan Duvnjak and two other detainees whose identity was not known to the Hague court – in the period between mid-July and August 1993.

Three of the deceased detainees were killed when HVO military policemen opened fire at hangars in which they were being held, the verdict said.

Kresimir Bogdanovic, commander of the Third Company with the Third Battalion of the HVO’s military police in Capljina, wrote in an official note to military police commander Coric, dated July 14, 1993, that there had been a shooting at Dretelj in which two detainees were injured and one died.

According to the note, Bogdanovic visited the scene of the shooting where he found military policeman Frano Vulic, who confirmed to him that he had fired shots through a broken hangar window. Bogdanovic testified at the Bosnian trial of Vulic, in which the military policeman was sentenced to ten years in prison for killing prisoners Omer, Izet and Hasan Duvnjak at Dretelj in July 1993.

No charges have been filed against Bogdanovic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however. BIRN was unable to reach him for comment.

The Hague Tribunal concluded that members of various HVO units, mostly military policemen of the Third Company of the HVO’s Third Battalion, members of Knez Domagoj First Brigade and the Home Guard were all present at the Dretelj detention camp.

The Herzeg-Bosnia verdict stated that Ancic was the commander of the Third Company of the HVO’s Third Battalion (later renamed the Fifth Battalion) from April 1993, and that Bogdanovic replaced him from the end of June the same year. Between August 5 and October 8, 1993, Ancic was the commander of the Fifth Military Police Battalion and, at the same time, the commander of the military barracks in Dretelj.

Although it is alleged that Dretelj functioned as a detention centre between April and early October 1993, most detainees were taken there in late June and early July. A report written by Ancic for Valentin Coric said that more than 2,500 Bosniaks were detained there.

In one of his reports, Bogdanovic mentioned the detention of 1,109 people by members of Knez Domagoj Brigade, its military police and policemen from the Interior Ministry. “In the afternoon, six busloads of Muslims were brought from the heliport. All those who were detained have been accommodated in the Dretelj military barracks and orderly records about them are being kept,” Bogdanovic’s report said.

The Herzeg-Bosnia verdict said that military police from the Third Company of the HVO’s Third Battalion – which was commanded by Ancic – were responsible for transporting the prisoners to the camp.

Detainees ‘beaten until they fainted’

Denis Saric was arrested on the front line in early July 1993 and taken to Dretelj.

As Saric was a nurse, he started working in the detention camp’s medical unit on July 16, he said in a statement that was used as evidence by the Hague court in the Herzeg-Bosnia trial.

Saric said that detainees suffering the consequences of abuse came to the medical unit on a daily basis. He added that guards often entered the hangar with a list of detainees, called their names out and beat them in front of the hangar. The most terrible screams came from a building known as Samica (solitary confinement), which was situated behind the medical unit’s premises, he said.

The prison at Dretelj had several solitary confinement units. The court was unable to determine the exact number, but it did say that detention conditions in the solitary units were extremely harsh.

In his statement to investigators, Saric said that at lunchtime every day, detainees were taken out of solitary confinement and had to pass between two lines of military police.

“They continued mistreating them while they were eating – while one group was beaten until they fainted, the others had to sing Ustasa [Croatian WWII fascist] songs in order to muffle the sound of the blows and screams of pain. Later the detainees realised they had to faint immediately to ease the suffering. We watched those scenes every day from the medical unit’s premises,” he said.

Two HVO reports, one of which was written in July 1993 and the other in September, said that no “mistreatment” had been observed at Dretelj.

In his report dated July 29, 1993, Tucak wrote that he could not have found any sort of physical abuse “because the manager and commander of the military barracks said they strictly prohibited such things”.
Tucak repeated to BIRN that physical abuse was strictly prohibited at Dretelj.

“Had I seen that, I would have written about it in my report to Mr Valentin Coric, who was my commander at the time,” he said. He added that “if they were hit, it happened during their capture”.

However, the Herzeg-Bosnia verdict determined that two detainees died after having been beaten.

“The chamber is satisfied that HVO members, including military policemen, committed or forced others to commit beatings with intent to cause severe bodily injuries to detainees, which they should have reasonably known could cause their deaths,” it said.

Commanders failed to prevent abuses

Zijad Vujinovic was only 16 when he was detained at Dretelj. He told the Hague Tribunal that he and other detainees were beaten up on their arrival at the detention camp and that his ribs were fractured.

He also described several incidents in which detainees were subjected to cruel treatment and beatings with chains, according to the Herzeg-Bosnia verdict.

In the verdict, the judges mentioned testimonies from people who were held in solitary confinement, who said they were beaten every day.

“[Protected] witness EE explained that after lunch, detainees had to line up facing the wall, legs and arms outstretched, while some members of the HVO military police beat them with batons, sticks, boards and even chains, and kicked them in their ribs and shoulders,” the verdict said.

The court found that between July 1993 and early October 1993, detainees were subjected to severe abuse not only by military policemen and guards at Dretelj, but also by people who came to the prison “from elsewhere”. This included local residents from the area, HVO fighters and Croatian Army soldiers – and sometimes, under duress, other Bosniak detainees.

These incident happened despite Nedjeljko Obradovic’s order dated July 3, 1993 banning unauthorised persons from entering the detention camp.

Ivan Ancic also prohibited visitors from entering the camp in his order dated July 6, 1993, but as stated in the verdict, on July 20 or 25, a man called Vid Palameta participated in the beating of one detainee. The Bosnian state prosecution later charged Palameta with war crimes against prisoners at Dretelj, including teenage boys and elderly men, but he could not be brought to trial.

An HVO security department document about the security situation and accommodation conditions for detainees dated September 20, 1993 said that the military barracks and prison were guarded by HVO military police officers and members of an HVO unit called the Home Guard.

The document also said that people not employed at the barracks or prison could only enter the facilities with the written approval of Obradovic or the approval of Zarko Pavlovic, the chief of Herzeg-Bosnia’s Security and Information Service, SIS.

Several testimonies at the Herzeg-Bosnia trial, which were substantiated by SIS and HVO military police reports, confirmed the presence of SIS personnel in the prison.

BIRN contacted Pavlovic, who did not deny that he was the head of the Herzeg-Bosnia SIS. However, after agreeing to an interview, he failed to respond to further calls.

Prosecutors decline to reveal investigation details

According to witnesses who were held at Dretelj, at least four hangars at the camp and two tunnels under a hill were used for detentions. The Herzeg-Bosnia verdict said that the detainees suffered from a lack of space and air, as well as non-existent hygiene facilities and medical care, and not enough food and water.

Mealtimes were particularly humiliating for the detainees, the verdict said: “The food was put on the ground and detainees were put in lines with 11 of them in each line. They had 11 spoons and 11 dishes at their disposal for all of them. The cutlery was never washed. They were given only a few moments to finish their meal.”

Vujinovic said that the cook would fill up the dishes and they had to eat “in a rush” before the utensils were handed over to the next group. “Around 500 detainees from my hangar would finish eating in approximately 18 minutes,” Vujinovic said in a statement mentioned in the verdict.

The verdict said that the evidence showed that the detainees received very little food. It cited CNN TV footage and photographs taken in August 1993 during the release of detained Bosniaks from Dretelj that showed how thin they were after having been held in detention for two months.

Emir Hajdarovic, who was detained at Dretelj for 19 days, told BIRN that the hardest period was between July 13 and 15, 1993, when the detainees were totally deprived of food and water.

“In that period people had to and were forced to drink urine in order to survive,” Hajdarovic said.

These conditions changed for the better after Tomislav ‘Tomo’ Sakota was appointed as “coordinator for inmates and prisoners of war” in Herzeg-Bosnia on July 22, 1993, the Hague court found.

It has been reported that Sakota was the manager of the Dretelj detention camp from then until December 25, 1993. Several people interviewed by BIRN said that Sakota has since died, but this could not be independently confirmed.

BIRN asked the Bosnian state prosecution if there are ongoing investigations into Sakota, SIS chief Zarko Pavlovic, Herzeg-Bosnia Military Police Security Directorate chief Branimir Tucak or Kresimir Bogdanovic, commander of the Third Company with the Third Battalion of the HVO’s military police.

The state prosecution responded that two of these names are not listed in its system, but declined to reveal which two. It said that one of the men is still under investigation, and the case against another had been closed with no charges brought, but again declined to reveal the men’s names.

Tucak confirmed that he has been called in for questioning in Sarajevo but said that he maintained his right to silence.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he insisted that the HVO military police were not responsible for guarding the detainees at Dretelj, even though some of them were deployed there, and that it was “someone else’s task”.

Former detainee Hajdarovic said that he believes that it is clear that not everyone who was responsible for crimes committed at Dretelj – and at other HVO-run detention camps like Heliodrom and Vojno where Bosniaks and Serbs were imprisoned during the war – has been prosecuted.

“There were so many crimes and abuses committed in those facilities that such a small number of people simply could not have done all those things,” he said.

Lamija Grebo

This post is also available in: Bosnian