Serb elite face exposure over aid to war crimes suspects Karadzic and Mladic

Prosecutors say collusion included army, police and Orthodox church but resistance likely as many reject guilt over atrocities

War crimes prosecutors in Belgrade say they are about to expose the role played by the Serbian elite in harbouring war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, but their efforts to press charges are likely to meet stiff resistance in a country veering back to the right.

The prosecutors say they will bring charges against "well-known" Serbs for harbouring war crimes suspects sought by The Hague tribunal following an extensive investigation into the army, the police, the secret service and the Orthodox church.

But in a nation still wavering between a sense of guilt and victimhood 13 years after the last of the Balkan wars, sceptics doubt they will pursue the top reaches of institutions at the heart of the Serbian establishment.

Doubts have multiplied after the presidential election last month of Tomislav Nikolic, who was once a top official in the Serbian Radical party of Vojislav Seselj who is now on trial in The Hague for atrocities. The prosecutors concede they are uncertain about how or whether the change in political tide will affect their work.

"We have already identified and reconstructed the means by which they supported the fugitives. We have traced their movements. We have identified 11 flats in Belgrade where the fugitives were hidden, so soon we will come out with details on how the network operated.

"Very soon we will prosecute all those who gave them refuge," the chief war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said at his Belgrade office. "That will happen soon because we have all the information we need."

Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader now on trial for genocide at The Hague war crimes tribunal, evaded capture until 2008, when he was found posing as a new-age healer in Belgrade.

He is believed to have had help forging a new identity from Serbian intelligence officers, and his arrest came only two weeks after a change of leadership at the top of the BIA, the secret service, brought in a more reformist generation of spies.

Vukcevic said that Karadzic was recognised in the spring of 2008 as he peddled alternative therapies among the socialist-era apartment blocks of New Belgrade. His identity was definitively confirmed by surreptitiously collected DNA, though Vukcevic would not say how it was obtained.

Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader whose trial for the Bosnian genocide began last month in The Hague, lived openly for years in Serbian army barracks with the connivance of sympathetic senior officers.

The last fugitive to be apprehended, Goran Hadzic, who was caught last year, is believed to have had help from the Serbian Orthodox church, and spent some time in Russia.

There is evidence that Karadzic, too, was hiding for some time in an Orthodox monastery during his 12 years on the run, and war crimes investigators have looked into the possible uses of church finances for hiding fugitives.

Vukcevic would not comment on whether the church would feature in his forthcoming report, or for that matter whether priests would find themselves in court.

The support networks are so deeply implanted into Serbia's most powerful institutions that some question whether Vukcevic will go after their ringleaders.

"He can't do it. He doesn't want to do it," said Srdja Popovic, a leading Belgrade human rights lawyer. "The whole question of war crimes involves the whole society. Everybody deep down feels guilty.

"Slobodan Milosevic [the Yugoslav president who masterminded the ethnic cleansing] won three elections here. Now there is a new kind of nationalism, a defensiveness in which the man in the street likes to see Serbs as victims. You can't wake up someone who is just pretending to be asleep."

Nikolic's predecessor in the presidency, Boris Tadic, oversaw the arrest and rendition of all the Serb war crimes suspects still on The Hague tribunal's list, and in return won candidate EU membership status for Serbia but the reward was not enough to keep him in office.

It was widespread disillusion with graft and cronyism more than co-operation with The Hague that brought Tadic down. Nikolic only emerged as a viable alternative by distancing himself from his former ultra-nationalist party, the Serbian Radical party, and their warlord leader, Vojislav Seselj, now on trial in The Hague for wartime atrocities.

But nevertheless the political transition reflected a wider backlash against the national mood of collective guilt and self-examination that originally helped Tadic into office in 2004.

Under pressure from the right, Tadic presided over efforts to rehabilitate Draza Mihailovic, the second world war leader of the Chetniks, a far-right militia responsible for countless atrocities, principally against Bosnian Muslims.

Tadic himself was close to Milorad Dodik, the current separatist leader of Bosnia's Serbs, and a coalition ally of the Socialist leader, Ivica Dacic, who was once Milosevic's spokesman.

Nikolic has gone even further, however, in repudiating Serb guilt. Despite advice from a coterie of western consultants, including former US and French diplomats, his rhetoric has outraged Brussels and its neighbours.

In his first few days as president he questioned whether the 1995 murder by Serb forces of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica amounted to genocide, and referred to Vukovar, a Croatian town destroyed in the 1991 war there, and site of mass killings of Croats, as a Serbian city.

"There is a saying in our language that goes 'the wolf can change its fur but doesn't change its character' so that can apply to the newly elected president," Vukcevic said. "He says now that he has changed his attitudes and changed his policy. However, it remains to be seen whether he has really changed his attitudes or not."

Asked whether the rise of Nikolic would affect the work of the war crimes prosecutor's office, Vukcevic said it was "too early to tell" but pointed out that earlier nationalist leaders had tried to close down his office. The prosecutors, however, insist that their report on the war criminal support networks will pull no punches despite the altered political landscape.

"We will open cases on everyone we have evidence against, and that includes well-known personalities," said Bruno Vekaric, the deputy prosecutor.

Public opinion is likely to be just as divided by a parallel investigation by the Belgrade war crime prosecutors into the role of the media in inciting sectarian hatred and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.

The prosecutors are questioning 30 journalists in an investigation that has explored where the outer boundaries of free expression threaten the right to life.

The landmark media case is likely to begin later this year, but prosecutions are imminent are against the support networks that helped Karadzic, Mladic and other war crimes fugitives evade arrest for more than a decade, said Vukcevic.

The investigation into the role of the Serbian media in inciting ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo is not expected to lead to prosecutions for several months but a preliminary report found that some of the reporting during the war "amounted to continuous indirect encouragement and instigation of war crimes".

The report said: "Aimed at the dehumanisation of the opponent, the press coverage tended to deprive its victims of their status of human beings. Media propaganda all over the former Yugoslav territory was an introduction into a bloody Balkan war."

The initial pressure for an investigation of the media came from the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia but the mainstream union says the inquiry is an attack on press freedom. Some of the journalists summoned by the prosecutors have failed to appear.

Vukcevic rejects their criticism. "This is a very delicate issue. We have to be very cautious in dealing with it because it's very difficult to define criminal involvement in war-mongering rhetoric. However, the fact remains that words can kill more effectively than bullets. Freedom of expression cannot be placed above anybody's right to life."

Serbian strife

June 1991

Socialist Yugoslavia begins to fall apart with the Croatian and Slovenian declarations of independence and the start of the Balkan wars.

April 1992

Bosnia secedes and the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, backs Serbian ethnic cleansing aimed at carving out a "greater Serbia". More than 100,000 Bosnians killed.

December 1995

Milosevic bows to Nato military intervention and a US-backed Croatian offensive and signs the Dayton peace agreement, ending the Bosnian war.

June 1999

After another Nato intervention, Milosevic withdraws troops from Kosovo, ending the ethnic-cleansing campaign. Kosovo's independence is recognised by most western countries but not by Russia and others.

October 2000

Milosevic is toppled by a mass pro-democracy movement.

June 2001

Milosevic sent to the Hague war crimes tribunal by new democratic government.

February 2003

Yugoslav Federation replaced by state union of Serbia and Montenegro.

March 2003

The reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, assassinated in Belgrade. Organised crime bosses and disgruntled security service believed to have carried out the killing.

July 2004

The reformist Boris Tadic is elected Serbian president.

June 2006

Montenegro declares independence.

July 2008

The Bosnian Serb wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, arrested in Belgrade after living for years posing as a new-age healer.

May 2011

The Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic arrested at his cousin's home in a village.

March 2012

Serbia granted status of candidate member of European Union.

May 2012

A former ultra-nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, is elected president, defeating Tadic.


Julian Borger in Belgrade

The GuardianTramp

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