False allegations against the Serbian war crimes prosecution and the enforced retirement of the prosecutor suggest that powerful people are still trying to hide the truth about the 1990s conflicts.
In the shadow of global events, such as the tragic attack in Paris and the mass killing in Nigeria, when we look closely at someone else’s backyard, it is our duty to look at our own yard too. We need to acknowledge what we have done about the 1990s, when similar news was coming out of our country, when just like today innocent people were targeted because of religion, hatred, warmongering propaganda and someone else’s interests.
What deserves special analysis and attention are the results of the efforts of the region and The Hague to find truth and justice, especially for the victims of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the state of institutions whose mandate was to deal with it. Especially because in recent months we have seen attempts to ruin the reputation of the Serbian war crimes prosecution, primarily the reputations of prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic and his deputy Bruno Vekaric.
-Just over a month ago, information circulated in the media aimed at discrediting the war crimes prosecution. Using manipulation and brutal lies that is acceptable to the tabloid public, the prosecution was accused of betrayal and espionage, namely in giving information to the Americans.
– A claim about the unlawful appointment of the deputy prosecutor was launched at the same time, and it also proved to be false and tendentious.
– Certain payments and the financial support of the American embassy for the prosecution were highlighted as well. In order to appear more convincing, some things were forged: by adding two zeros, a fee that was paid to deputy prosecutor Vekaric was changed from 3,000 dinars (25 euro) to 300,000 dinars (2,500 euro).
– The attack on the prosecution beganfrom lawmaker Milovan Drecun, a former journalist, now an MP from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Although his claims soon turned out to be false, this was not a reason good enough to call this MP to account.
It all served to anaesthetize the public so that the news that the war crimes prosecutor is leaving before the end of his term in office could pass off without much reaction. After the law was amended on an expedited basis, the possibility that the prosecutor could remain in office until the end of his term was abolished, and according to the new law, he will be retired.
The law, which was soon dubbed ‘lex Vukcevic’, has also brought peace to someone else other than the prosecutor himself, who was under pressure and received threats from the day he took office, and whose work was constantly obstructed.
The motives for the attacks on the prosecution in the media and his urgent dispatch to retirement, as well as the indictments he issued and the cases he opened, may provide answering elements to the following question: who feels relieved that Vukcevic is being retired?
To serve as a reminder, a political will to deal with organized crime and war crimes emerged only in 2003. After years of efforts to establish a court and a prosecution which were ready to fight against impunity for the most serious crimes in post-October Serbia (after Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in October 2000), this was achieved primarily by late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
The results of the work of the court and war crimes prosecution are in front of us and we can be satisfied with what was achieved at the court. It could be argued whether more could have been done in such circumstances, whether there was the courage and political will to address every issue. However, we can surely conclude that a lot has been done in Serbia. Out of 44 indictments there were convictions in 35 cases. Cases such as Skocic, Bihac, Ovcara, the Gnjilane Group, Zvornik and many others were solved. The Serbian prosecution’s cooperation with prosecutor’s offices dealing with war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia could be given an extremely positive mark.
In order to see the motives for this sudden attack on the war crimes prosecution more clearly, we have to include many variables, such as the announcement of new indictments which we hope will include those responsible at the head of former state structures and at the head of the police chain of command.
The case of the Strpci abduction is taking shape and, along with other cases, it will give the answers to many questions that have been casting a shadow over our country. The prosecution’s investigation that will shed light on the responsibility of the media for its warmongering role and for creating an atmosphere of hatred towards our neighbours is also coming to an end. The announcement of the completion of this investigation is also among possible motives for the attacks on the war crimes prosecution.
There is a clear strategy that was applied to ruin the prosecution’s reputation and prevent it from resolving all those issues. It is an old, tried and tested recipe of accusations of fraud and espionage. We have seen this already during the 1990s and anyone who ever rose from their torpor and criticized Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, or pointed out responsibility for war crimes from the 1990s to today, was given this epithet of spy and foreign mercenary. It is a strategy that has been successful in the past and that thus has no need to be changed.
Answering to this requires a responsible and mature society with the willingness to examine even the most painful issues, ones that paralyzed relations in the region. But avoiding this could lead to the repetition of such crimes.
Do you want to see those who committed the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in the street in Paris? Do you want to see those who massacred more than 2,000 people in just one day in the street in Nigeria? I am certain that you don’t. Following the same analogy, why would we want to meet the people who are responsible for crimes in the 1990s in the streets of Serbian towns?
Creating a safer environment, with no fear and no impunity, has to be a priority in Serbia, a country that wants to be a part of the European Union. We owe this not only to Europe, which came out of a conflict in the middle of the last century stronger and more mature, but also to the people of this country, and especially young people, who will read about the 1990s wars in history books, where there will be court judgments for the war crimes committed in Serbia.
Milan Antonijevic is the head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, YUCOM.