06 Aug 1992 DEPORTATION OF REFUGEES TO THEIR BUTCHERS AND OTHER WAR CRIMES MONTENEGRO AUTHORITIES PURPOSELY PUSH INTO OBLIVION: MILO DJUKANOVIC AND MOMIR BULATOVIC PASS THE BUCK FOR WAR CRIMES
Montenegrin court recognised the crime of deportations in the ruling on damage claims but the judges acquitted those who had taken part in the arrests and deportations of victims. The judges also protected the command chain and the country’s officials, under excuse that Montenegro was not a party to the conflict in Bosnia. The civil sector demands justice and coming to terms with the past.
“It’s tough to grow up without a father and not to know the whereabouts of his remains”
Alen Bajrovic recalls dramatic morning scenes in May 1992 in Herceg Novi. He was a five-year old but the memory of the event still haunts him:
“Men in uniforms arrived. They were not paramilitaries but two members of the National Police of Montenegro. My sister of seven and half years and myself were there. They told my father that he had to go with them! And that was it- the end”.
Osmo Bajrovic fled the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina hoping to find refuge for his family and himself in Montenegro. However, he was arrested, deported back and never heard of since. He was one of many dozens sent to death. The Montenegrin authorities are yet to deal with its role in the past.
The then prime minister and now president Milo Djukanovic and the then president Momir Bulatovic in their statements to CIN-CG exonerated themselves and blamed an unknown third party. On the other hand the civil sector keeps stressing that each country should finally accept responsibility for the crimes committed and stop humiliation of war victims and their families.
Montenegrin police arrested in May 1992 at least 66 Bosnian Muslims who had fled to Montenegro from the war in Bosnia. They were sent back as hostages to the forces under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, allegedly to have them exchanged for Serbian prisoners of war. They were deported from Herceg Novi on 25 May 1992 and sent to the concentration camp in Foca, Bosnia. Only a few survived. On 27 May another group was handed over. Subsequently it came out that they were killed.
Their bodies have never been recovered. The place(s) where they perished is unknown and the perpetrators there have never been found, let alone prosecuted. It’s been 27 years since.
Nine police and security officials in Montenegro stood the trial for the deportations into certain death. All of them were acquitted- the then head of national secret service (SDB) Bosko Bojovic, the head of police force Milisav Markovic, Herceg Novi SDB chief Radoje Radunovic, an SDB agent Dusko Bakrac, Ulcinj SDB chief Bozidar Stojovic, Herceg Novi Police Department chief Milorad Ivanovic, a Herceg-Novi police department official Milorad Sljivancanin, Bar Police Department chief Branko Bujic and Ulcinj Police Department chief Sreten Glendza.
On the other hand, Montenegro paid millions of euros of damages in 2008 to the families of the killed, after 4 years of litigation over unlawful action of Montenegro’s security forces. Thereby the state indirectly confessed the crime.
However, the government and its institutions have remained deaf to other similar cases like the torture of POWs in Morinj, ethnic expulsions in Bukovica, the massacre of fleeing Kosovo civilians in Kaludjerski Laz etc.
The Court Ruled Police Action Unlawful
The investigation on the deportations was launched in February 2006 and prosecutor Lidija Vukcevic signed the indictment in January 2009. The accused were charged for war crime- illegal arrest of 79 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their extradition to the Republic of Srpska. The Podgorica High Court explained in its not-guilty verdict (all defendants) that the refugees were unlawfully arrested and handed over as hostages. Furthermore, the same was determined by the ICTY in the Krnojelac Case (former chief of the prison camp in Foca). However the High Court in Podgorica acquitted the defendants of the charges of war crime against civilians with explanation that the defendants were “not a party to the conflict in BH nor were they in the service of a party to the conflict in BH”.
“The activities of the defendants and the order (for deportation) were unlawful from the international law vantage point of view. Nonetheless, it has not been proven that the defendants, then members of the Ministry of Interior (MUP), were a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) forces, or in the service of any party to the conflict and thereby actively involved in the armed conflict which, in that case, would have obliged them to abide by the rules of international law”. This is stated in the verdict exposition by the trial chamber made of judges Milenka Zizic, Ratka Cupic and Dragica Vukovic. The verdict was upheld by the Appellate Court.
The European Union expert, Italian prosecutor and international judge Maurizio Salustro, in the report on prosecution of war crimes in Montenegro (which was published by Vijesti), points out that the aforesaid interpretation is wrong and unheard of in international humanitarian law and practice. Similar opinion was reiterated in the recent panel of the Human Rights Action (HRA) and the Center for Civic Education (CCE) in Podgorica. Professor of international law Nebojsa Vucinic pointed out at the panel that “the factual situation was in conflict with the verdict”.
“This standard (of the Montenegrin court) does not exist in international law. If that were the case, then civilians could not commit a war crime, which is absurd ” he concluded.
The verdict referred to the order of the then Interior Minister late Pavle Bulatovic in the form of telegram, which was withdrawn after a few days. It was ordered to comply with the request of the Ministry of Interior (MUP) of Republic of Srpska and arrest the Muslims who had arrived from Bosnia and Herzegovina and send them back in order to have them exchanged for Serbian POWs. Furthermore, the order also contained instructions to return Bosnian nationals of Serbian ethnic background liable to conscription. So a number of them was sent back but there are no details on what became of them afterwards.
The court also found that all the refugees were unlawfully arrested as no detention records and official notes were made. Consequently the Montenegrin police had no authority to comply with the request from the police in Bosnia.
Eventually it was revealed that Pavle Bulatovic had issued the deportation order. However he was already long dead. He was assassinated on 7 February 2000 in a restaurant owned by Rad Football Club in Banjica, Belgrade. He died as rump Yugoslavia’s minister of defence. His murder was never solved.
Milo Djukanovic and Momir Bulatovic in their statements to CIN-CG, do not consider themselves responsible for the war crimes of the 90s. On the contrary, they take credit for surpressing the war crimes.
While Djukanovic stressed that the the crimes “were orchestrated by the military and political circles of the then federal authorities” Bulatovic points out that none other but himself stopped the deportations as soon as he learned about them.
Momir Bulatovic further added in his interview with CIN-CG that the telegram (which authorised the deportations) was not signed by Pavle Bulatovic but by a person who is “currently high up in the police force”. He wouldn’t say anything beyond. He said that he presented a document in court which showed that the aforesaid person had signed the list (of deportees) and that the document was discovered in Rozaje and subsequently declared confidential. He wouldn’t show the document to CIN-CG saying that he kept it “in Belgrade”. The document is not mentioned in the verdict exposition though.
“The crime took place on 27 May 1992, on the very same day when it was decided that we should cease to enforce the laws of Yugoslavia. I ordered to halt the operation. It was a political abuse and the abuse of the federal regulations in the wake of the vacuum back then. That was a tragic mistake, but not on the part of the accused” concluded the former head of state.
CIN-CG asked President Milo Djukanovic whether he felt personally responsible for the deportations (as he was the prime minister at the time), whether the case was properly investigated, justice served and what he thought of how Montenegro dealt with its troublesome past and war crimes committed by its citizens.
The then PM Djukanovic pointed out that he had already repeatedly condemned the deportations and “every act of persecution, killing and other inhuman treatment towards persons of other faith and/or ethnicity which happened upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia”.
“Even while the war was raging in the region which, for a long time, pushed us off our natural track towards the European Union, the intention of Montenegro was clear- to totally steer away from those destructive politics which were in swing on pretence of saving the old union. I remind you that Montenegro took in refugees from all parts of the former Yugoslavia and at one point the refugees made up a fifth of Montenegro’s population which was a unique example. Nevertheless we had prudence to succeed in preserving the multi-ethnic and multi-faith harmony in Montenegro which was under threat back in those years” explained Djukanovic also referring to the war in 1999. when Montenegro accepted some 100,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees.
He emphasised that the damage had already been done and that no verdict or search for perpetrators of individual acts can undone it “although it’s our duty indeed to serve the justice…Those who initiated and encouraged such a destruction ultimately ended up in court. Our country has compensated the families of the victims upon final court decisions which altogether ruled €5,714,656,20 for damages” said Djukanovic in his reply to CIN-CG. He has no objection to the courts.
He further stated that the indictments and the subsequent verdicts spoke enough on the resolve of the state to enforce justice against all odds and to preserve its integrity and the legacy of anti-fascism and multi-ethnicity. “We carry on and the Special Prosecution Office has four cases that it works on where Montenegrin citizens are suspected perpetrators”. He says that Montenegro continues to cooperate with the International Residual Mechanism which succeeded the Hague Tribunal and the parties recently signed the Memorandum of Understanding.
The European Union in its Montenegro Progress Report, on the other hand, points out that not a single case of war crimes since 2016 has been opened while four cases remained in the preliminary investigation phase.
“Montenegro needs to further increase its efforts to fight impunity for war crimes by applying a proactive approach to effectively investigate, prosecute, try and punish war crimes in line with international standards, and also to prioritise such cases“ say the EU report.
Djukanovic in his statement to CIN-CG holds that Montenegro successfully dealt with its troublesome past primarily by distancing from the destructive politics of the time. He then said that the key to reconciliation was to acknowledge the past and reject the ideologies of nationalism.
“We have to learn from those unpleasant examples so that no one ever brings us to a situation where those acts would be possible. On the contrary, we should strive together to preserve the century old multi-ethnic harmony in Montenegro” concluded the President of Montenegro.
Professor Milan Popovic, journalist Esad Kocan and a member of parliament Koca Pavlovic pressed criminal charges against Milo Djukanovic and the then Prosecutor General Ranka Carapic in May 2012. They were suspected of the war crime of deportations and abetting the perpetrators to evade justice. They submitted a statement of Momir Bulatovic given before the High Court in Podgorica in 2010 where he confessed that the thing was “a mistake of the government”.
The Prosecution Office rejected the charges in 2014 without any explanation save two words- no basis.
The Strasbourg Court- a last resort for justice
A group of mothers, daughters and sisters of the victims lodged a motion before the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 with the 2015 addendum. They blame Montenegro for failing to provide justice and for having had no respect for human right to life and prevention of torture. They conclude that Montenegro’s courts supported the overall cover up and playing down the crime of deportation. The courts further failed to rectify the flaws in the indictment and thus acquitted all defendants by appealing to non-existent legal standard.
“It’s a historical fact that the Prime Minister of Montenegro (Djukanovic) in 2015 is the same person who occupied the post back in 1992 when the crime took place. Moreover he has remained in the top posts almost without a break ever since. This fact points that the judges and prosecutors were biased and unprofessional in their work having been elected under the auspices of the ruling party” is said in the motion which Human Right Action (HRA) director Tea Gorjanc Prelevic lodged on behalf of the families of the victims.
It is also stated that the investigation had a number of flaws as the prosecutors bypassed the top government officials who had ordered the deportation or must have had knowledge of the same.
“The complainants claim that the government violated the torture ban since it didn’t provide the information about the family members who perished. The complainants recovered the bodies of only two victims who had been deported to the prison in Foca. The bodies of the other four deported from Herceg Novi on 27 May 1992 have never been recovered. There are no reliable information on the whereabouts of their remains and how they perished in the area under the Republic of Srpska control in Bosnia and Herzegovina” says Prelevic.
In her statement to CIN-CG Prelevic said that the court in Strasbourg sent the inquiry to Montenegro after four years.
“The government gave the opinion, it disputed the Court’s jurisdiction and the contents of the motion. Bosnia also gave its opinion recently as an intervener in the proceeding. It supported and further backed up the allegations of the complainants, especially in the historical context and in regard to the Republic of Srpska authorities to which Montenegro had handed over the Bosnian refugees” says Prelevic.
The complainants seek no damage payments from the Strasbourg Court. They solely seek to address the responsibility of Montenegro.
“Even if only one of the complainants succeeds in the endeavour, the verdict will be a victory of all those who care about the justice for the 1992 deportation victims. I hope that the European Court of Human Rights will assert its jurisdiction over the case and rule that the Montenegrin courts incorrectly applied the international law and the basic logic, and that the investigation was not complete” states Prelevic.
Prelevic believes that the Strasbourg verdict could have a great impact in this present world which has to deal with floods of refugees. “Non-refoulment is one of the basic rules of the international law whereby it is forbidden to deport a person to the country where he/she could face death or torture, which was unfortunately the case with the 1992 deportation victims”.
Tamara Milas of the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) in the interview for CIN-CG points out that in nearly all judicial proceedings for war crimes, including the deportations, it has become clear that the Montenegrin judiciary is not mindful of the victim’s suffering and that the judiciary is liable to political pressure so to stultify the proceedings.
“The Montenegrin authorities try to ‘engineer an oblivion’ in the place of justice” concluded Milas. The war crime cases would have ended up in archives long time ago if it were’t for the EU accession talks and Chapter 23 which forced the Prosecution Office to adopt the War Crimes Investigation Strategy she explained.
“The Strategy envisages to fight the war crimes impunity through efficient investigation, prosecution and punishment in accordance with international standards. It’s been four years since the adoption of the Strategy and no progress has been made in the application of international humanitarian law and standards whereby they could rectify the errors of the past in regard to the proceedings and verdicts” says Milas. The reparations mean more than just paying the damages. It’s about criminal justice, the culture of remembering, apology, monuments and genuine efforts to make sure that those crimes never ever happen again.
The NGOs try for years to garner support of the authorities to build a monument to the victims of deportations in Herceg Novi and to have the authorities finally apologise for the crime and get them to provide a full list of victims and recover their remains. Not a single initiative has been endorsed.
“The justice will be served only if the guilty are convicted and the families are given the remains of their beloved ones. Thus at least we can have a grave to go to and pay respect” concludes Alen Bajrovic.
The Bajrovics fight in court for already 12 years
The Bajrovics are the only family which refused to settle with the government over damage payment in 2008 and continue to fight in court over indemnification.
“We wouldn’t settle without knowing about our father’s resting place and other details. When I look back, everything appears to be a farce, cover up and fairy tales. In essence, I can’t hope for anything as I know that there is neither will nor desire (to resolve the issue). The same people who were in power back then are still in power now. A leopard can’t change its spots” concludes junior Bajrovic.
The Bajrovics pressed charges in March 2007 over the death of their father who had supported the family. After four years the court partly endorsed the damage claim. The High Court upheld the ruling of €20,000 for each surviving family member but it overturned the first instance verdict in regard to long-term support. The Supreme Court changed the verdict in 2013 and awarded extra €5,000 to each family member while the support claim was returned to the first instance court for retrial.
Moreover CIN-CG recently found out that the High Court concluded in its last ruling that the support claim cannot be based on the average monthly salary but on the last pay check of Osmo Bajrovic in 1992. However, the court continued to change its mind and the last “solution” is to base the support amount on the lowest sustenance- which by law is merely €70.
Ovaj članak je dio projekta “Tranziciona pravda i ratni zločini u Crnoj Gori – istina ili izazov?”, koji realizuje Centar za istraživačko novinarstvo Crne Gore (CIN-CG), a uz finansijsku podršku Evropske unije kroz program “Aktivizam civilnog sektora za pomirenje u regionu bivše Jugoslavije – podrška REKOM-u“.
Stavovi izraženi u ovom članku ne odražavaju nužno stavove EU niti organizacija koje sprovode projekat “Aktivizam civilnog sektora za pomirenje u regionu bivše Jugoslavije – podrška REKOM-u“.