Serbia: Unrepentant war criminals enjoy public spotlight

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj was found guilty by the Hague war crimes court but remains an MP, while other war criminals continue to play public roles despite their convictions.

Filip RudicSource: BIRN
(EPA, file)
(EPA, file)

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj was found guilty by the Hague war crimes court but remains an MP, while other war criminals continue to play public roles despite their convictions.

In April, the UN court in The Hague partially overturned Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj’s acquittal on appeal and sentenced him to ten years in jail for wartime crimes in Serbia.

Seselj was found guilty of making nationalist speeches that called for the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs, but he will not spend any time behind bars because the years he has already spent in custody outweigh his sentence.

The nationalist politician had already returned to Serbia in 2014 after being conditionally released on humanitarian grounds for cancer treatment, and refusing to return for his verdict. In the wake of April’s sentencing, he staged a series of incidents that included trampling the Croatian flag and insulting a delegation from Zagreb that was on a visit to Serbia.

Seselj also tried to hold a rally in the northern town of Hrtkovci, where he made the anti-Croat speech in 1992 that got him convicted, but was prevented by the Serbian police.

He remains an MP, despite the fact that Serbian law says his verdict legally disqualifies him from serving in parliament.

In October, the organisers of the state-sponsored Belgrade Book Fair gave a stand at the event to Greater Serbia, Seselj’s publishing house.

Serbian website Mondo reported that some elementary and high school students visited Seselj’s stand to ask for autographs and take pictures.

At the same event, the Serbian Defence Ministry promoted a book by the former Yugoslav Army chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic, who is currently serving a prison sentence for war crimes in Kosovo.

Pavkovic, who is serving his 22-year sentence in Finland after his 2009 conviction by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, wrote a diary about the NATO air campaign to stop the Serbian forces’ crackdown on ethnic Albanians in 1999.

Defense Ministry’s decision to publish Pavkovic’s book continued the already-established practice of Serbian state institutions and ruling parties sponsoring or celebrating war criminals.

The chief prosecutor at the Hague court, Serge Brammertz, warned the UN Security Council in December that the glorification of war criminals and the denial of wartime crimes in the former Yugoslavia was continuing.

Brammertz criticised state officials who he said were “portraying as heroes men who committed the most serious violations of international law”.

Meanwhile a Serbian court fined eight activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in August for disrupting a speech by convicted war criminal Veselin Sljivancanin in January 2017.

The court found that the activists violated the law by blowing whistles during Sljivancanin’s speech at an event that was organised by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party in the town of Beska.

Serbia seeks missing persons, probes NATO

In August, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic named the head of Serbia’s commission for probing the murders of journalists, Veran Matic, as his special representative for establishing the fate of Serbs missing from the Croatian war.

Matic’s job will be to cooperate with his counterpart, the Croatian president’s special adviser for the issue of missing persons, Ivan Vrkic.

Matic and Vrkic met in September and vowed joint action to find the remaining Serbs and Croats who disappeared during the 1990s war.

In early August, the Serbian government also expanded the mandate of Matic’s commission to include murders and other crimes against media workers committed during the 1990s wars.

However, it remained unclear what the Serbian commission can do about crimes in other former Yugoslav countries in which Belgrade has no jurisdiction.

Serbian leaders, like those of most former Yugoslav countries, dodged signing a declaration to establish the RECOM wartime fact-finding commission at the Western Balkans summit in London in July.

However Serbia did establish a parliamentary commission to examine the alleged effects on public health of NATO’s use of depleted uranium ammunition during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

Serbian media widely blame an alleged increase in tumour patients on the NATO bombing, while ignoring the fact that depleted uranium was used almost exclusively in Kosovo.

Experts have disputed claims that depleted uranium harmed Serbians, and denied that there is a cancer epidemic in the country.

“Every year we use phosphate fertilisers with more uranium than what was dropped in 1999 [by NATO],” epidemiologist Zoran Radovanovic said in a debate aired by the Serbian national broadcaster, RTS, in May.

But the head of the parliamentary commission, Darko Laketic, appeared to have already decided that depleted uranium harmed Serbians, even before the commission has finished work.

“If uranium is not harmful, why is so much money spent on storing it, why is it not just thrown away into the environment?” Laketic asked rhetorically in an interview with the newspaper Politika.

Bosnian Serbs convicted in Belgrade

After a long period without any war crimes convictions, the Serbian court announced two guilty verdicts for crimes committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In November, Belgrade Higher Court sentenced former Bosnian Serb soldier Ranka Tomic to five years in prison for participating in the torture and murder of a Bosnian Army nurse in July 1992 during the Bosnian war.

According to the indictment, Tomic, as captain of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Petrovac Women’s Front, participated in physically abusing and killing the captured nurse.

Also in November, the court sentenced Milanko Devic, another former Bosnian Serb Army soldier, to seven years in prison for killing a Bosniak civilian in 1992.

Both were first-instance verdicts and can be appealed.

Meanwhile in July, another department of the Belgrade Higher Court rejected a request to rehabilitate the leader of Serbia’s Nazi-backed World War II puppet government, Milan Nedic.

The court dismissed as groundless the rehabilitation request from Nedic’s family and supporters, who wanted to declare him a victim of political persecution by Yugoslavia’s former Communist authorities.

The process attracted controversy because several experts pointed out that Serbian law does not allow the rehabilitation of people who collaborated with the Nazis.

Nedic headed the so-called Government of National Salvation, a puppet administration in Serbia during World War II that operated from August 1941 to October 1944.

Far-right groups, as well as anti-fascists and leftists, gathered in front of the Higher Court from time to time during the legal process to show support for or opposition to the rehabilitation demand.

Belgrade Appeals Court in May also overturned the first-instance verdict rehabilitating World War II Serb Chetnik leader Nikola Kalabic, who was declared a ‘national enemy’ by the Yugoslav judiciary, ordering the case to be reheard from the start.

The decision returned the Kalabic case to a court in the town of Valjevo, asking it to determine whether or not the Chetnik leader participated in war crimes.

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