The London arrest of a Bosnian wartime leader heralds a new phase in Serbia’s unrelenting aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which the British authorities have now made themselves unwitting pawns.
By Branka Magaš — A member of Bosnia’s war-time presidency, who subsequently served as president of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ejup Ganic, was arrested at London’s Heathrow airport on 1 March 2010, at the request of the Serbian war-crimes prosecutor and on the basis of a European extradition treaty. Ganic appeared at a London court on the evening of his arrest, and has been remanded in custody until 29 March; bail was refused on 3 March and he remains in Wandsworth prison, denied contact with his family or lawyer. It is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the British government’s own role in the arrest.
As president of the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, which is twinned with the University of Buckingham, Professor Ganic has been a frequent visitor to Britain. The Serbian extradition request alleging his responsibility for deaths connected with an attack by Bosnian forces on a column of troops belonging to the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) in Sarajevo on 3 May 1992. The Serbian government is expected to provide full papers to support their extradition request, before a date can be fixed for an extradition hearing, according to British sources. ‘A judge will then consider whether there are any bars to the extradition.’ But as pointed out by several analysts, Serbia is seeking Ganic on the basis of evidence that has already been dismissed by the UN war-crimes tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague. And Serbia has only recently signed an agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina according to which people sought for war crimes would be tried in the countries where they are domiciled, but which it has now chosen to disregard. Ganic’s arrest is all the more puzzling given that the Bosnian federal government is itself, in fact, already conducting an investigation into the events of 3 May, and has consequently applied to the British government for the professor to be returned to Sarajevo.
Ganic’s arrest is only the first step in the execution of Belgrade’s plan to indict all members of the wartime Bosnian presidency, which in turn would make liable every single Bosnian who served his country in any capacity during the war. According to the current members of the Bosnian state presidency Željko Komšic and Haris Silajdžic, by bringing charges against Bosnia’s wartime leaders Serbia has violated the Rome Agreement signed in 1996 by Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. ‘This agreement clearly states that, before the countries who signed it can bring charges, they must first ask for the Hague tribunal’s opinion, which Serbia has failed to do, thus violating international law’, say Komšic and Silajdžic. They stress that they themselves would seek the Hague tribunal’s opinion, ‘because Bosnia-Herzegovina’s sovereignty is also being violated.’
Bosniak, Croat and Serb members of the wartime government have sharply condemned Ganic’s arrest, which in their view is designed as an attempt to criminalise Bosnian resistance to Serbia’s aggression of 1992-5. Ivo Komšic, like Ganic a member of Bosnia’s wartime presidency, told local media that: ‘This is an attempt to show that defence against aggression is a crime. It is shocking to see a respected member of the international community such as Great Britain colluding in it.’ Mirko Pejanovic, another member of the wartime presidency, agrees: ‘The issuing of warrants for the arrest of defenders of Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina is an attempt on the part of Serbia to revise history and to present the war in our country as a civil war in which all parties were equally guilty.’ And he expressed his concern for the impact which Ganic’s arrest will have on Bosnia’s internal stability, the maintenance of which underpins regional peace. One can only wonder why the British authorities have allowed themselves to become involved in Serbia’s dangerous game.
For Serbia the war goes on
It might be thought that a country which spent much of the 1990s making war against its neighbours, and committing numerous crimes in the course of it including that of genocide, a country that has harboured many indicted and yet-to-be indicted war criminals including ones sought for genocide, would be the last country on earth to be so moved by the plight of soldiers belonging to an invading army which it did not legitimately command, and which was operating outside Serbia’s own borders, that it would be willing to give the lie to its own proclaimed commitment to improved regional relations, in order to bring the alleged perpetrators – who are not its own citizens – to justice.
So why is Serbia seeking extradition of the Bosnian wartime leader Ejup Ganic from an unaccountably pliant Britain? Why does the Serbian government feel impelled to override both ICTY, which has found no case against Ganic, and its recently signed treaty with Bosnia-Herzegovina which precluded any such actions on its part? Why is its government so ready – at the very moment it has been trying to polish up its image in preparation for being formally invited to begin the process of joining the European Union – to jeopardise its still fragile relations with its neighbours, all of whom at different times fell victim to its aggression? What is it that makes this Serbian government so willing to face the charge that it is – yet again – trying to throw this part of Europe, only now beginning to stabilize itself, into fresh turmoil, with unforeseeable consequences for European peace? Why is Belgrade so keen to get hold of man who teaches engineering to Bosnian and British university students, and plays no role in Bosnian national politics? In sum, why do Ejup Ganic and others responsible for Bosnia’s defence in 1991-5 remain such a threat to Serbia, fifteen years after the end of the war and ten years after the fall of Slobodan Miloševic who started it in the first place?
The simple answer is that Serbia is doing it out of fear. The nationalists who seized power in Serbia on the eve of the fall of Communism, and who remain in control of the Serbian state, have sought to build their case in the eyes of the Serbian population by erecting a bi-polar image of its national history, in which one pole stands for a saintly Serb nation living under a permanent threat of extinction, the other pole its numerous enemies including Serbia’s neighbours, faiths other than Orthodox Christianity, and the West in general. This image is now under mortal threat. For Serbia initiated genocidal wars at a time when the European continent was at peace, and then found that the crimes these entailed cannot easily be swept under the carpet. Ever since the ICTY and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Serb forces had committed genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbian government has been living in constant dread that this preferred national image would be tarnished for good if Serbia itself were to be found guilty by the ICTY of having committed genocide. As the national guru Dobrica Cosic has recently declared in connection with the pressure on Serbia to pass the European parliament’s resolution condemning the genocide in Srebrenica, Serbia should never accept the ‘lies about Serbs committing genocide in Bosnia’, because this would make the Serbs a ‘genocidal nation on a par with Nazi Germany’. (Pecat, 12 February 2010.)
Serbia managed to get round the ICJ, which did not find it guilty of committing genocide at Srebrenica, but ‘only’ of not doing enough to prevent it. The court had relied on evidence collected by the ICTY. But, as Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia points out, several trials are currently taking place before the Hague Tribunal – against Radovan Karadžic, Momcilo Perišic, Jovan Stanišic and Franko Simatovic – include charges pertaining to genocide in Bosnia. Karadžic’s own charge for genocide has been extended beyond Srebrenica to include dozens of other municipalities across Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Belgrade has devised a complex strategy to fight the Tribunal, which involves hindering its work through lengthy delays (a tactic adopted by Slobodan Miloševic, Radovan Karadžic, Vojislav Šešelj), opting for an overwhelmingly political defence, intimidating witnesses, withholding documents (see its agreement with the Tribunal’s former prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, to prevent publication of sensitive documents testifying to Serbia’s direct involvement in the Bosnian war), etc. And from the very start of the Tribunal’s work Belgrade has relied on a policy of equalisation: on the claim that all parties to the war were equally guilty of starting it and equally criminal in its prosecution. Karadžic’s defence before the Tribunal contains all these elements, including also the claim that it was the Bosniaks who started the war, and that they even habitually killed other Bosniaks in order to throw the blame unjustly on the Serbs.
Thrown into disarray by the ICJ verdict in 2007, Belgrade has tried to establish the ‘all are equally guilty’ thesis by focussing on the alleged plight of the JNA in places like Tuzla during its withdrawal from Bosnia, when a number of troops were killed and wounded after coming under attack on 15 May 1992. A high-ranking local police officer, Ilija Jurišic, was arrested on Belgrade airport in May 2007, charged with having ordered the attack, and in 2009 sentenced to 12 years in prison – even though the B-H war-crimes court, which has jurisdiction in the case, had dismissed the case against him. Having met no dissent from the EU, the same recipe has now been applied to Ejup Ganic in connection with similar events on Dobrovoljacka Street in Sarajevo (see the interview with Jovan Divjak in the next post).
Belgrade’s concern with the suffering of JNA soldiers (rather than their civilian victims) relates only to Bosnia. This preoccupation with Bosnia reflects the fact that two international courts have ruled that soldiers under Belgrade’s influence and command have committed genocide there. The earlier arrest of Ilija Jurišic and now that of Ejup Ganic should be seen as an integral part of the effort to re-interpret the causes and nature of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in such a way that, by criminalising its resistance, Serbia’s aggression against it might appear justified and the crimes committed during it more intelligible, however unfortunate. And Bosnia is a country in which Serbia holds an important stake in the form of Republika Srpska. The already shaky legitimacy of this entity founded on heinous crimes committed against unarmed civilians would suffer a grave blow if Karadžic were to be found guilty of genocide and if Serbia’s own role in it were legally established. The current debate in Serbia over the adoption of a parliamentary resolution on genocide in Srebrenica testifies to a very real fear of the nationalist establishment that, in the words of its favourite historian Cedomir Antic, by having the Serbian parliament finally accept that what happened in Srebrenica was indeed genocide, Belgrade will accept also ‘collective responsibility on the part of Serbia and Republika Srpska’ for the crimes their armies committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vreme, 4.2.2010).
As Biserko argues, Belgrade’s warrants serve a wider political purpose, a purpose that runs counter to regional and European interests. Western governments would do well, therefore, to halt Belgrade’s destructive policy. They should also put pressure on ICTY to release all protected documents, in order to present a true picture of what actually happened during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Back in the 1990s, the West failed miserably in its basic duty to uphold collective security in Europe, when it chose not to halt Slobodan Miloševic’s murderous adventure. British complicity with Serbia in carving up Bosnia-Herzegovina is well attested. Ganic’s arrest shows London determined not to learn from past mistakes.
What actually happened in Dobrovoljacka Street? We publish in an accompanying post an interview given in October 2009 by retired general of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina Jovan Divjak to Omer Karabeg of Radio Free Europe (RFE) about the events in question. General Divjak participated directly in these events, which took place on 3 May 1992, when during the evacuation of the former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) from the command centre of the second army district, the column was attacked and a number of soldiers and officers were killed. The army’s withdrawal was part of an agreement reached on 2 May after the JNA had failed to take the centre of Sarajevo and had imprisoned the president of the Bosnian Presidency, Alija Izetbegovic, his daughter and personal secretary Sabina, and a member of the Bosnian negotiating team, Zlatko Lagumdžija, as they landed at the Sarajevo airport on their return from internationally staged negotiations with the Karadžic faction in Lisbon.
Credits: Bosnian Institute, UK. / March 4, 2010.