Justice Served in Sjeverin Case?
A Belgrade court hands heavy sentences to Bosnian Serb paramilitaries accused of murder, but the victims’ families want to know who ordered the executions. 6 October 2003
BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro—A Belgrade court sentenced four former Serb paramilitaries to 15 to 20 years in prison on 29 September for the torture and murder of 16 Muslim civilians.
Though the court’s ruling was applauded as the first conviction of Serb paramilitaries since the July appointment of a special war crimes prosecutor, some say the fact that no former high-ranking Serbian authorities have been held responsible for the massacre nearly 11 years later, shows that Belgrade is not yet ready to try war crimes at home.
Four members of the Serbian paramilitary unit “Revengers,” Milan Lukic, Oliver Krsmanovic, Dragutin Dragicevic, and Djordje Sevic were found guilty of torturing and murdering 16 Muslim civilians whom they abducted from a bus travelling from Serbia to Bosnia in 1992.
Five other unnamed individuals were also convicted.
The incident has become known as the Sjeverin case, named after the town in which the victims were kidnapped, and is widely believed to be the most heinous war crime committed on Serbian territory during the 1991-1995 war.
Lukic, Krsmanovic, and Dragicevic were sentenced to the maximum of 20 years in prison, while Sevic was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Sevic and Dragicevic were the only two present in court, both having been arrested last year. Lukic and Krsmanovic, both of whom are fugitives, were tried in absentia.
On 22 October 1992, the armed Revengers, under the command of Lukic, stopped a bus en route to Rudo, Bosnia from Priboj, Serbia and forced 16 Muslim passengers—all Yugoslavian and Serbian citizens--into a truck. They were taken to Visegrad, in eastern Bosnia, which was then under the control of the Bosnian Serb Army. Along the way, the prisoners were forced to sing Serbian nationalist songs, according to the judge.
The truck stopped at the Vilina Vlas hotel in Visegrad and the hostages were lined up outside the truck where the Revengers searched their bags. The civilians were then severely beaten and tortured inside the hotel and later taken to the edge of the Drina River where they were executed. The victims’ remains have never been found.
Reading the court’s ruling, Judge Nata Mesarevic said there was no doubt that Lukic was the group’s leader and that the Revengers had committed criminal offenses against civilians.
For the victims’ families, though, the court’s ruling was bittersweet, and they say the Sjeverin case is not over until former Serbian authorities are held responsible as well.
“Is this punishment? Do you know what I’ve been through all these years? We still don’t know where are our son is buried. There is no justice here,” local media quoted one victim’s mother as saying as she left the Belgrade court.
The trial failed to shed any light on who gave Lukic’s Revengers the green light for the execution and who allowed the Bosnian Serb paramilitary group across the Serbian border. During the trial, Judge Mesarevic refused to allow that line of questioning.
Sefko Alomerovic, a representative of the victims’ families, said in his closing statement that the “court attempted to deny the involvement of the former Serbian government in ethnic cleansing in areas in Serbia populated by Muslims.”
“The court refused many of my constructive suggestions and evidence that proves that war crimes were not committed only by paramilitary forces, but by the Bosnian Serb Army as well,” Alomerovic said. “The council did everything possible to protect former Republika Srpska authorities.”
Dragoljub Todorovic, the lawyer for the victims’ families, also argued that the court was working to protect the members of the former Bosnian Serb Army and the former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).
Ramiz Catovic lost two sons to that fatal bus ride, and he says that the Sjeverin case is far from over. Catovic blames then-Serbian authorities for allowing Bosnian Serb soldiers onto Serbian territory when “Serbia wasn’t in the war, officially.”
Rasim Ljajic, Serbia’s minister for human and minority rights, told local media following the court’s ruling that former Serbian authorities are ultimately responsible for the crime.
“I have mixed feelings,” Ljajic said. “I am satisfied that case ended in court and unsatisfied because the organizers [of the crime] and the killers [Lukic and Krsmanovic] have not been arrested.”
The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights said in a statement that it also believes that the court’s ruling in the Sjeverin case proves that Serbia is not ready to try war crimes, and that there has been “no effort to completely solve this case.”
The committee was particularly disconcerted with the behavior of newly appointed special war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic. During the trial, the committee says that Vukcevic refused to hand over evidence that could prove who among former Serbian authorities had ordered the execution and allowed the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries into Serbia.
The committee also says that the prosecutor changed the original indictment, which named the Serbian paramilitary group responsible, to say that the Revengers were simply an “armed” group—ruling out any connection with the Bosnian Serb Army.
There has been some speculation among human rights groups and the victims’ lawyers that if the Belgrade court were to rule that the Revengers were part of the Bosnian Serb Army, some connections could be made to the JNA. Such connections could harm Serbia’s defense strategy for an indictment in the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where Bosnia and Herzegovina is suing the former Yugoslavia for genocide and war crimes.
In the meantime, the whereabouts of Lukic and Krsmanovic are also a topic of much speculation. According to the daily Danas
, Lukic is hiding out in the Serbian town of Obrenovac, while Krsmanovic is in Visegrad in eastern Bosnia.
Lukic has also been indicted by the ICTY for leading the massacre of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians in Visegrad, including burning masses of people alive in houses, forcing women and children over a bridge and shooting them as they fell, and slaughtering thousands of Bosniak men.
Lukic has managed to evade arrest since his indictment in 1998, reportedly running between Serbia and Visegrad.
--by Andrej Nosov
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Wanted by The Hague tribunal for massacring thousands in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, a notorious easily evades arrest in a territory controlled by SFOR troops.
by Anes Alic and Jen Tracy
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