BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina is launching a campaign entitled ‘Forgotten Victims’, aimed at highlighting the victims of war crimes for which no one has yet been convicted under final verdicts.
BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday begins its ‘Forgotten Victims’ campaign, which intends to enable victims of unprosecuted war crimes and their families to speak about what they went through and draw public and judicial attention to violations that have still not been prosecuted.
The project is intended to encourage the opening of investigations and the filing of indictments against suspects.
Denis Dzidic, the director of BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that there have been fewer and fewer war crimes cases launched in the country in recent years.
“The number of war crimes indictments filed at the state level is in decline each year and witnesses to those events are dying, so it is important to draw attention to crimes for which nobody has been tried as yet, particularly to cases in which suspects live outside Bosnia and Herzegovina and are unavailable to prosecutorial authorities,” Dzidic said.
As part of the project, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina will publish ten reports about unprosecuted crimes in ten communities.
A photograph of a war victim and their relatives will also be published each Monday over the course of the next ten months, conveying their personal story and calling on judicial institutions to take action.
Although nearly 25 years have passed since the end of the Bosnian war, many victims have still not had an opportunity to testify in court about what they went through and contribute to bringing those responsible to justice.
So far, around 850 people have been sentenced at the state level in Bosnia and Herzegovina to a total of 2,750 years in prison for wartime crimes.
But the state prosecution still has around 500 pending war crimes cases involving identified perpetrators and as many cases against unidentified ones.
The Forgotten Victims project is supported by the government of the United Kingdom and is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, as part of its Regional War Crimes Project.
Miladin Trifunovic, the wartime commander of the Vogosca Brigade of the Bosnian Serb Army, went on trial for committing crimes against humanity in the Vogosca and Ilijas area in 1992.
Miladin Trifunovic went on trial at the Bosnian state court on Tuesday, accused of allowing commanders of units subordinate to him to issue orders to the management of the Planjina Kuca prison in Vogosca to take away detained Bosniak civilians and use them as forced labourers on front lines.
The prosecution alleges that Trifunovic, in his capacity as commander of the Vogosca Brigade of the Bosnian Serb Army, issued at least five orders for civilians to be taken from Planjina Kuca, although he knew that combat was ongoing at the frontline locations and that the civilian prisoners would not be safe.
“[The prisoners] were forced to fortify combat positions, dig trenches, carry ammunition and bring food for soldiers, evacuate injured and killed soldiers, while also being used as human shields,” prosecutor Adis Nuspahic said.
Nuspahic said that this resulted in the deaths of at least 22 people, while 18 more were injured.
The indictment alleges that Trifunovic’s actions were part of a widespread and systematic attack by the Bosnian Serb Army on the Bosniak civilian population in the municipalities of Vogosca and Ilijas between early July 1992 and December 16 that year.
The defence declined to present an introductory statement at this opening of the trial.
The first prosecution witness will be heard on February 13.
Munib Ahmetspahic expressed regret for having joined the Islamic State in Syria. A Court declared him “deradicalised”, but experts say his case provides few real lessons for the fight against religious radicalism.
Standing in a Bosnian courtroom in April last year, Munib Ahmetspahic repented.
“How naïve we were,” he said.
The war in Syria had cost Ahmetspahic a leg, his brother’s life, and years spent on a battlefield and in custody.
That April it cost him another three years of freedom, one of 26 people so far sentenced in the second instance to a total of more than 50 years imprisonment for fighting in the Syrian war.
Ahmetspahic, however, is unique; he is the only repatriated Bosnian fighter to be medically certified in court as ‘deradicalised’.
Experts say his case offers hope for state efforts to ‘deradicalise’ returning fighters, but caution against over-optimism, saying that the process of radicalisation and deradicalisation are complex and unique to each individual.
“On the basis of examinations, we… determined there was no tendency towards simulation; his statements were genuine,” said neuro-psychiatrist Abdulah Kucukalic, whose presented his findings to the court at the request of the prosecution.
“He was saying what he felt,” Kucukalic told BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina. “He could have tried to soften his words, but he did not.”
Nothing happens ‘overnight’
Bosnia outlawed fighting in or recruiting for foreign wars in 2014, in response to the flow of Muslim Bosniaks joining militant groups such as Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The fall of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate early last year has seen dozens returned along with, in many cases, their wives and children. Authorities are currently investigating seven people who returned to Bosnia by plane on December 19.
In 17 separate cases, more than two dozen have already been jailed, but only Ahmetspahic was deemed to have ‘deradicalised’.
Authorities hope a special program of deradicalisation will help address a big part of the challenge posed by the return of dozens of former fighters from Syria.
Psychologists are cautious about the potential impact of the deradicalisation program in Bosnia, however, and of the lessons the Ahmetspahic case might provide.
“It is very important to understand that neither radicalisation nor deradicalisation can happen overnight,” said psychologist and family therapist Tanja Tankosic-Girt.
Deradicalisation must involve social workers, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists who can assess whether a person has really been deradicalised and to what extent, Tankosic-Girt told BIRN BiH.
It “cannot be confirmed by just saying ‘I regret and I think what I did was wrong’. We must be careful when dealing with this phenomenon, when saying that someone has been deradicalised.”
Ahmetspahic, via his lawyer, agreed to be interviewed for this story but the Justice Ministry turned down a request to visit him in prison.
‘Brutal reality’ of war
Ahmetspahic’s turnaround indeed appears dramatic, his legal battles beginning long before ISIS emerged with a bang in 2014.
Born in 1990, on the eve of Yugoslavia’s collapse, Ahmetspahic was acquitted in 2013 of charges that he destroyed evidence connected to a gun attack on the United States embassy in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in October 2011. The gunman, Mevlid Jasarevic, was jailed for 15 years.
Rusmir Karkin, Ahmetspahic’s lawyer, said he had felt aggrieved by the state’s handling of him in the case and that it had, “in a certain way, motivated him to go to Syria.”
“His motive for going to Syria was to help Muslims,” Karkin told BIRN BiH. “I consider that his departure was not motivated by any radical Islamic idea, but a simple wish to help other Muslims in their fight in Syria.”
Kucukalic, too, said Ahmetspahic appeared to have been convinced by others of the need to help “the brotherly Syrian people so they could defeat the undemocratic regime that was in power in Syria,” and that jobs were offered to residents of Gornja Maoca, the village in Bosnia where Ahmetspahic lived and which has long been notorious as a stronghold of Islamic extremism.
Travelling to Syria with his brother, Ahmetspahic “faced the brutal reality,” Kucukalic said.
“He saw hundreds of different fractions, groups of armed people, all of whom were pursuing their own interests and goals, while they were just objects of exploitation, but there was no way back,” Kucukalic said. After his brother was killed and he was wounded, Ahmetspahic’s “illusions fell apart.”
Ahmetspahic left for treatment in Turkey, got married and became a father. Working as a car mechanic, he eventually earned enough to get himself and his family back to Bosnia, his lawyer, Karkin, said.
“We had been manipulated,” Ahmetspahic told the court. Soon after arriving in Syria, “I realised how naïve we were and it was in no one’s benefit.”
‘No patented deradicalisation procedure’ Neuro-psychiatrist Omer Cemalovic is currently involved in assessing a number of returnees from Syria. He said the lessons from Ahmetspahic’s case were limited given little can be done if an individual has not already come to question their own actions.
Deradicalisation, Cemalovic said, requires systematic measures in society and religious communities.
“I am not aware of any patented deradicalisation procedures proven by experts and applied,” he said.
Dubravko Campara, the prosecutor in charge of Ahmetspahic’s case, told a hearing at which the defendant’s plea agreement was being considered that the prosecution was particularly interested in the expert assessment of his deradicalisation and the level of his prior radicalisation.
“It is evident that the defendant is completely deradicalised,” Campara said.
“The circumstances that led to his wounding and the fact that he got children afterwards have led to his complete deradicalisation. It could be noticed during his first interviews following his return, in which he admitted his mistakes and regretted having gone there at all. He wants to live a normal life in Bosnia and Herzegovina; he wants his children to grow up with their father.”
Kucukalic said he believed Ahmetspahic would never have gone to Syria had he found work in Bosnia, a problem facing many in the country, where unemployment and emigration are widespread.
“He tried to get a job in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He tried to get a job in Germany, but, unfortunately, with no success. A third option, i.e. departure to Syria, came to him,” Kucukalic said.
Preventive measures were missing Ahmetspahic was arrested on landing at Sarajevo airport in November 2018. His wife and two children had already returned to Bosnia.
Admitting his guilt and offering to testify against others, Ahmetspahic told the court that his marriage to a Bosnian woman and becoming a father “gave me the strength” to work for their return to Bosnia.
“Now he is in the third phase,” said Kucukalic. “Regret, feeling guilty for what happened to him, of having been used, misused.”
“He realised that the reality was different from what was presented to him in Maoca,” he said.
“Had our experts organised themselves preventively, had they gone to Maoca, as a small, closed community, and talked to people, given them certain pieces of information, confronted them, had religious leaders been there too to tell them there was one view of Islam, but there was another one too, those young people would not have departed to Syria so easily.”
“We let those persons go and we are now applying repressive measures. But, if we had done it this way, there would be no repressive measures. We would have saved the young people and their mental health.”
Malko Koroman, a wartime police chief in Pale, went on trial for the unlawful arrest and detention of Bosniak civilians, some of whom were tortured and killed in 1992.
The crimes against humanity trial of Malko Koroman, the wartime chief of the police’s Public Security Station in Pale who is now a deputy mayor, opened on Monday at the Bosnian state court.
The prosecution accuses Koroman of having organised and enabled the unlawful arrests and detention of people at the police’s Public Security Station in Pale and in a gym near the police building as part of a widespread and systematic attack targeting the Bosniak civilian population in the area between March and December 1992.
According to the charges, the civilians were subjected to torture and murder.
The first count alleges that between April and September 1992, Koroman ordered and organised the detention of Bosniak civilians from Pale in the gym, while police officers guarded the building from outside and controlled access to it.
“After examining them at the Public Security Station, his subordinates would bring the civilians into the gym and detain them in it, on no legal grounds, not telling them the reasons for their detention. The civilians did not have enough food, which was irregularly brought to them by Public Security Station staff,” said prosecutor Dika Omerovic.
The defendant is also charged with having enabled Bosnian Serb Army soldiers to bring and detain civilians from Sarajevo and Bratunac in the gym, where they were physically mistreated.
Under the second count, Koroman is charged with enabling Public Security Station officers to abuse the civilians on a daily basis and failing to take the necessary measures to protect them.
Prosecutor Omerovic said that five civilians died at the gym due to severe injuries, but police officers concealed the murders.
The third count alleges that Koroman, in collaboration with the Bosnian Serb Army, organised an attack on the village of Hrenovica and nearby villages. The prosecutor said he led the attack by gathering 100 policemen and assigning tasks and instructions.
During the attack, a group of men was taken to the gym in Pale. As they were entering the gym, they were made to walk between two lines of policemen who hit and kicked them. The policemen continued mistreating them until Koroman ordered them to stop.
Prosecutor Omerovic said she would prove that Koroman, as chief of the Public Security Station, actively participated in the persecution of the civilians.
But defence lawyer Muhidin Kapo said he would show that Koroman was not guilty.
“It is true that he was the chief of the Public Security Station, but the gym was not under his responsibility. A totally different body was responsible for it. When he appeared, all the mistreatment stopped,” Kapo insisted.
“Malko is a completely positive person and we shall prove his innocence,” he added.
Koroman is currently deputy mayor of the Old Town East municipality in Serb-majority East Sarajevo.
The first prosecution witnesses will be heard on January 27.
The state prosecution launched an investigation after noisy celebrations by convoys of Serbs driving through Srebrenica, Visegrad and Bratunac, allegedly playing nationalist songs, caused fear among local Bosniaks.
The Bosnian state prosecution opened a case on Wednesday to investigate whether Bosniaks who returned to the Srebrenica, Visegrad and Bratunac areas after fleeing during the 1990s war were intimidated by noisy celebrations by Serbs on Orthodox Christmas Eve on Monday.
The case will also examine whether the celebrations provoked ethnic and religious hatred and intolerance.
The prosecution said in a statement that requests will be sent to “relevant police and security agencies to collect and submit all pieces of information and evidence concerning the events in question”.
Groups of Serbs marked Orthodox Christmas Eve by driving in convoys playing loud Serbian songs through Srebrenica, Visegrad and Bratunac, areas where a minority of Bosniaks have returned since large-scale crimes were committed there during the war.
One of the convoys of cars passed by the Potocari Memorial Centre, where thousands of victims of the July 1995 massacres of Bosniaks from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces are buried. Another of the convoys, in Visegrad, was organised by supporters of the Serb nationalist Ravna Gora Chetnik movement.
Local Bosniaks said they were frightened by the noisy celebrations.
But Goran Simic, the president of the Srebrenica war veterans’ organisation, who led the car convoy in that area, said the celebration was “normal for the Christmas holidays”.
“No Chetnik songs were sung,” Simic told BIRN. He insisted that participants did not fire guns, but said that firecrackers were set off.
The justice minister of Sarajevo Canton, Lejla Salihagic-Brcic, said that the Chetnik celebration in Visegrad might not have happened if the prosecutor’s office had completed its investigation into a controversial commemoration of WWII Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic, a probe which was launched in March 2019.
“I am sure that there would not have been such unpleasant events again as we had yesterday, which upset the public and inflamed religious and national hatred,” Salihagic-Brcic said on Tuesday.
Chetnik leader Mihailovic was sentenced to death in 1946 by a Yugoslav court for high treason and collaboration with Nazi Germany.
Hardcore fans of Partizan Belgrade football club staged a noisy demonstration in support of Ratko Mladic outside the UN detention unit near The Hague, where the wartime Bosnian Serb military chief is in custody.
The transfer of less serious war crimes cases from Bosnia’s state-level prosecution to lower-level prosecutors was supposed to speed up the processing of major cases - but plans to make this happen have not been fulfilled.
The Bosnian state prosecution filed an extradition request for war crimes suspect Osman Osmanovic, who was arrested in Serbia for allegedly assaulting and abusing captured Serb civilians and prisoners of war in 1992.
The state prosecution in Sarajevo asked the Bosnian Justice Ministry on Wednesday to send a request for Bosniak ex-fighter Osman Osmanovic’s extradition from Serbia.