Human Rights Watch Applauds NATO Efforts to Apprehend War Criminals

Human Rights Watch applauds NATO’s efforts today to apprehend suspected war criminals in the Prijedor municipality. According to sources in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) apprehended Milan Kovacevic, director of the Prijedor hospital, without incident. Simultaneously, SFOR troops elsewhere in the Prijedor municipality attempted to arrest former Chief of Police Simo Drljaca, but when Drljaca fired on SFOR troops, he was shot and killed. SFOR’s apprehension efforts were based on sealed indictments against Kovacevic and Drljaca. Whereas we regret that a death resulted during the apprehensions, we commend the NATO forces on their actions, and encourage them immediately to take action to arrest other individuals indicted for war crimes, specifically Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, in a January 1997 report entitled “The Unindicted: Reaping the Rewards of Ethnic Cleansing,” detailed the current and past crimes for which Drljaca and Kovacevic are allegedly responsible .


Simo Drljaca: Former Chief of Police and Head of Secret Police

Simo Drljaca, one of the most notorious police officials in the whole of former Yugoslavia, controlled the civil and secret police during the Serb takeover of the Prijedor area in 1992 and was later appointed vice-minister of internal affairs (under the Ministry of the Interior) of the [then so-called] Republika Srpska. Numerous news reports, survivor accounts, and an extensive investigation by the U.N. Commission of Experts have indicated that Drljaca played a major role in the organization and management of the concentration camps in the Prijedor area.

According to an IFOR source, Drljaca was appointed directly by Radovan Karadzic to command the police force of five municipalities in the Prijedor area. He reportedly led a brutal military police-type unit during Operation Storm [in Croatia], which gave him a bad reputation among young soldiers and police.(1) From 1992-1995, Drljaca’s police force continued to persecute non-Serbs, and there is ample evidence to suggest his direct involvement in the “disappearance” of a Catholic priest, Father Tomislav Matanovic, and his parents in September 1995.

After the signing of the Dayton agreement, Drljaca personally obstructed freedom of movement and the return of refugees and displaced persons, going so far as to hand out weapons to the local population to threaten returnees.(2)

Drljaca’s immediate supervisor is Minister of the Interior Dragan Kijac who is based in Bjeljina, the seat of the Ministry of the Interior and the Republika Srpska police. In June 1996, an IFOR source told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, “Drljaca has complete power, maintaining control through the police and the military. [Mayor] Stakic is under Drljaca’s thumb…Stakic won’t meet with me on certain subjects unless Drljaca is present.” The source claimed that Drljaca was “controlled by Pale,” through limiting or granting him funds, calling him to Pale frequently, and controlling information passed to him.

Drljaca’s cooperation with the U.N. mission, and more recently, with IPTF has been minimal, but there was surprisingly little international attention to his behavior until an altercation with IFOR in September 1996 . He remained police chief for nine months following the signing of the Dayton agreement, despite his history and his numerous violations of the Dayton agreement.

An IPTF report dated November 2, 1996, which was given by a third party to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, states, “The impression by Prijedor IPTF, IFOR and ECMM, is that Drljaca is clearly wielding power and influence in Prijedor. The question at hand is whether this influence extends to the local police. From the sightings listed above [in the IPTF report] and the information of Drljaca’s new position with the Ministry, it appears to be the case. The fact that Drljaca is traveling in police vehicles gives further credence to this conclusion.”(3) Rather than being dismissed from his post, Drljaca was actually promoted to special assistant to Minister of the Interior Dragan Kijac. Drljaca describes his new role as “security advisor,” according to IPTF. Drljaca has also referred to himself as “logistics officer.”

At a November 29 IFOR press conference, IPTF spokesman Alexander Ivanko acknowledged that Drljaca had been seen four times by IPTF, and that IPTF Prijedor believed he was still in operational control of the Prijedor police. Ivanko stated “We’ve raised this with Minister Kijac, he has reassured us-I’m not sure we can believe his reassurances-but he has reassured us that Simo Drljaca no longer has any influence in the area of Prijedor. As far as we know, Simo Drljaca nevertheless is an assistant to Minister Kijac, in charge of logistics.” Drljaca was also seen in December 1996 by IPTF in an apparent police function.

According to information given to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki in January 1997 by an IPTF source, Drljaca is still the de facto chief of police, and “controls all police issues.” He also carries an illegal weapon and is accompanied by armed body guards at all time.

IFOR sources have confirmed to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, and IPTF sources strongly suspect, that Drljaca is heavily involved in organized crime.(4)

Simo Drljaca: Wartime Activities

According to Kozarski Vjesnik, a Serbian-controlled newspaper in Prijedor:

The man (Simo Drljaca), who the Serbian Democratic Party of the Opstina Prijedor put in charge of forming the Serbian police after half a year of illegal work, had done his job so well that in thirteen police stations, 1,775 well-armed persons were waiting to undertake any difficult duty in the time which was coming. Between April 29 and 30, 1992, he directed the takeover of power [by the Serbs] which was successfully achieved in only thirty minutes without any shots fired. The assembly of the Srpske Opstine Prijedor, at the end of March last year [1992], appointed him chief of the public security station (i.e. in charge of the secret police). He was in charge of this job during the most demanding period and remained in the position until January 1993. These days he has been appointed the vice-minister of Internal Affairs of the Serbian Republic.(5)

In an interview with Kozarski Vjesnik on April 9, 1993, Drljaca stated:

“In the collecting centers of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje more than 6,000 informative conversations(6) were held. Of these people, 1,503 Muslim and Croats were transferred to the Manjaca camp.”(7)

Drljaca did not explain what happened with the other 4,497. Speaking to a journalist about prisoners in the Manjaca camp, he said with regret, “Instead of them getting their just punishment, we were forced to release them by the international powers.”(8)

The secret and civil police, both controlled by Drljaca and the Ministry of the Interior, “would interrogate, torture and kill camp inmates and be in charge of the psychological part of the operation,” according to the U.N. Commission of Experts. “The most brutal functions of the sluzba bezbjednosti (state security) personnel could alternatively be carried out with the paramilitary units,”(9) among them the Red Berets, a paramilitary unit possibly under the direct command of Radovan Karadzic.(10) A visit to Omarska by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki (then Helsinki Watch) representatives in August 1992 confirmed that access to the camps was granted by local police authorities, not by the military, although there was considerable collaboration between the two.(11)

As Drljaca told Kozarski Vjesnik, “They (the police forces, including the secret services) carried out my orders and the orders of the CSB (“Centar Sluzbene Bezbjednosti,” or Public Security Center) Banja Luka and the Minister of Interior . . . the cooperation was excellent with the Army of Republika Srpska and with the officers of that army. The cooperation was manifested in the joint cleansing of the terrain of traitors, joint work at the checkpoints, a joint intervention group against disturbances of public order and in fighting terrorist groups.”(12)

After local Serbs took control of the Prijedor municipality in the spring of 1992, according to the U.N. Commission, Drljaca informed all non-Serbian police officers that they would have to abide by “Serbian law”, display “Serbian emblems”, and sign a declaration of consent to abide by the regulations set by their Bosnian Serb counterparts. Few signed, and no non-Serbs remained in the police force for more than the first ten to fifteen days. Soon they were among those specifically targeted for persecution. One former Omarska detainee claims that on one occasion, twenty non-Serbian policemen from Prijedor were executed in the camp.

It has been alleged that Drljaca was one of those responsible for deciding who would be taken to the Omarska camp. A survivor of the Omarska and Manjaca camps and former acquaintance of Drljaca’s told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki on November 16, 1996 that he saw Drljaca a number of times in the Omarska camp in 1992. His daughter, seeking his release, had called Drljaca, who checked a list while they were on the phone and confirmed that her father was on the list for Omarska. “Sorry,” he said, “there’s nothing I can do for him.” (13)

Peter Maas of The Washington Post further described Drljaca’s role:

“The tour of Omarska and Trnopolje was conducted by Simo Drljaca, who controls the camps and is the police chief of Prijedor, the nearest town. Drljaca flatly denied the charges of mistreatment, torture, and executions. “Interrogation is being done the same way as it is done in America and England,” he said. Asked about the skeletal state of many at Omarska, he said that they were not underfed. “They are not skeletons,” he boasted.”(14)

When Chuck Sudetic of the New York Times asked Drljaca why the prisoners were so thin, Drljaca replied that the Muslims were naturally skinny because they did not eat pork and fasted each year during Ramadan. “That’s the way the Muslim nation is,” he said. “Have you read the Koran?” Drljaca insisted that none of the prisoners had been physically mistreated and that reports of killings were untrue, and that any men who had died in the camp had died of war wounds. He also told Sudetic that all the investigators were lawyers.(15)

In August 1992, Sudetic reported: “The most powerful warlord in the Prijedor area is the local police chief, Simo Drljaca, who runs the militia and has reportedly had serious clashes with local army officers.” In an apparent effort to distance himself from the atrocities being committed in the concentration camps, Karadzic told the Times that Drljaca was responsible for the inhumane conditions in the camps under his control, which included Omarska and Keraterm.”(16)

Sudetic reported: “Undercutting denials by Serbian leaders that there is no official policy behind the forced expulsion of Muslims and Croats, Mr. Drljaca speaks frankly about how to ‘cleanse’ the undesirables. “With their mosques, you must not just break the minarets,” he said, “You’ve got to shake up the foundations because that means they cannot build another. Do that, and they’ll want to go. They’ll just leave by themselves.”(17)

In 1992, Drljaca had insisted to journalist Roy Gutman(18) of Newsday that no one was killed at Omarska, and that only two prisoners had died between May 25 and mid-August, both of “natural causes.” Another forty-nine “disappeared,” including the former lord mayor of Prijedor, Muhamed Cehajic, and were presumed dead, Drljaca told Gutman.(19) But Simo Drljaca later told Gutman that “in legal terminology, we use that term ‘disappeared.’ Maybe some who ‘disappeared’ died in ‘disappearing.'”(20)

In the Bosnian Serb version of events, detainees were interrogated for four days and then deported – voluntarily. Drljaca told Newsday that the 800 detainees who “organized the whole thing” (the alleged “conspiracy to overthrow the Serbs”), among them rich Bosniaks who allegedly financed the Bosniak SDA political party, were taken to Manjaca “to await criminal trial.” Taken with them were 600 people who reportedly commanded units of Bosniak and Bosnian Croat resistance. The remaining 1,900 persons [of the approximately 3000 people Drljaca admitted to arresting and taking to Omarska] were found “innocent” and taken immediately to Trnopolje, which officials, including Drljaca, referred to as “a transit camp,” but was actually a deportation center.(21)

In fact, relatively few interrogations were conducted before transfers to the various camps, and only a handful of detainees had ever carried arms, according to Gutman’s extensive and detailed reporting.(22)

A survivor of Keraterm and Trnopolje said in November 1992:

“On July 17, 1992, at 5:30 a.m., Simo Drljaca, chief of police, ordered my second arrest. Three civilian policemen and a driver took me in a police car first to the police station and then to the town camp ‘Keraterm’…. ‘Keraterm’ was a plant built to produce tiles and thermic products. It was never opened, and its plant floors and depots were turned into a notorious camp enclosed by wire fence, well guarded, with machine-gun nests and a huge dredger which overlooked prisoners like a ghost. Between 850 to 1000 people would be brought to the camp daily, depending on the extent of ‘cleansing’ in the town and its surroundings….I spent 53 days in ‘Keraterm’ and in the prison hospital. I watched people being beaten up and murdered…”(23)

Another survivor reports that:

“Around June 20th, the ethnic cleansing of the villages of Motric and Carevac was carried out. Serbs simply took away the people who were at their homes or worked in the field. They killed some of them, mainly young men, placed others on the buses and transferred some of them to Keraterm, while the rest of them were allegedly taken to Omarska. In Keraterm some twenty guards readily waited for them with special beating implements like baseball bats, chains, battery cables, and extremely flexible metal hoses with a metal ball on the end. They would take them in groups of ten and they did not watch where they hit them. Especially brutal was Dusan Knezevic, called Duca, who pierced some people’s thighs with a bayonet….[One night] they started shooting with automatic guns…we realized what had happened in the morning. ‘Autotransport’ [sic] FAP 1620 trailer truck came in the morning. A certain Pero whom I knew from earlier drove it. The guards took some people from our sleeping-room and ordered [them] to load bodies on the truck. There were ninety-eight dead and sixty-four wounded….the following night, July 25-26th, we again heard machine-gun fire in the same room…I counted. Exactly twenty-one shots.”(24)

Drljaca finally escorted Peter Maas and some other journalists to Keraterm, where he refused to allow them to see the building where prisoners had actually been held, and then to Omarska and Trnopolje, where the journalists met starving men who spoke with them in hushed tones about the terror of the camps.

An IFOR source recently told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that Drljaca “ran the camp at Omarska….was appointed directly by Karadzic…[and is] up for the Hague Tribunal.” The source added that Drljaca owns the ‘Aeroklub’ restaurant and a perfume shop in Prijedor.(25)

Simo Drljaca and the Prijedor “Mafia”

According to two IFOR sources assigned to the Prijedor area with access to intelligence information, and IPTF sources, Drljaca also heads a well-organized crime ring. The police reportedly “take a cut” on all major financial transactions in the town, and some local businesses are required to pay Drljaca “protection money.” Local Serbs and non-Serbs alike fear Drljaca and his men.

IFOR confirmed that Drljaca controls the local Property Commission and the local Commission on Displaced Persons and Refugees, and therefore controls housing in the Prijedor municipality. “If you know Simo, you can get a house,” one IFOR officer told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. “If you don’t, you can pay him. Everyone in Prijedor knows this.”(26) This source also stated that Drljaca was involved in the destruction of over ninety Bosniak houses in the village of Hambarine, outside Prijedor, in October 1996.

The Boston Globe confirmed through Western sources in Prijedor who had talked to local residents about Drljaca that “In addition to controlling officials from the mayor on down, Drljaca is alleged by residents to have demanded kickbacks for apartments and police protection of businesses. Locally, his name is ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ for the rate he demands from area businesses and restaurants. . .Bosnian Serbs who don’t toe the party line allege they had to pay the police to avoid being evicted from their apartments” and have been called in to the police station, where they were threatened by Drljaca in “informative talks” (interrogations) after speaking with Western officials.(27)

Milan “Mico” Kovacevic: Director of Prijedor Hospital

Milan “Mico” Kovacevic, an original member of the “Crisis Committee,” now serves as director of the Prijedor Hospital. In his book Seasons in Hell, Ed Vulliamy stated:

“Milan Kovacevic, the big, impervious and haunted deputy mayor of the now Serbian-controlled town of Prijedor…[is] the man responsible for the delivery of Muslim prisoners to the Omarska concentration camp…”We must understand,” he says, “that wherever there are Serbs, there is Serbia, and that Serbs cannot be ‘free from persecution’ until Kalabic’s and Moljevic’s(28) frontiers are secure from all the enemies of the Serbian narod [people or nation]”. . . Kovacevic was born in a Croatian concentration camp during the Second World War. Outside the window of his office, Muslim women are queuing at the police station for news of their menfolk, whom they have not seen since they were taken away to Kovacevic’s camps two months ago.”(29)

Later, Kovacevic tells Vulliamy, “What you will find here are not concentration camps, but transit centres. We are a people born out of concentration camps, determined to protect our nation from genocide again.” He then said, “I understand your priorities, but I do not have the authority to allow you to go to Omarska.” This, after Vulliamy had been informed by Colonel Vladimir Arsic(30)and Major Milutinovic of the local Bosnian Serb command that the camp was run by civilian authorities.(31)

Roy Gutman, journalist for Newsday, also interviewed Kovacevic on October 18, 1992. “Milan Kovacevic, the city manager in Prijedor, said Omarska was an investigative facility, set up ‘to see who did what during the war, to find the guilty ones and to establish the innocent so that they didn’t bear the consequences.’ He said the camp was closed when the investigation was completed.” Gutman’s book contains a photo of Kovacevic in a U.S. Marines t-shirt, sitting with Drljaca at the time.(32)

In the aforementioned February 1996 article for The Guardian, Ed Vulliamy speaks of Kovacevic:

“The man responsible for the day-to-day administration of Camp Omarska was Dr. Milan Kovacevic, and anaesthetist by profession. He was a bear of a man with a pale moustache and he told us there was nothing the world could teach the Serbs about concentration camps, since he had been born in one….After our discovery of Omarska, when the media circus descended on Prijedor and the camp was hurriedly closed, Dr. Kovacevic was assigned the task of explaining to the world’s cameras what a “collection centre” was…. Dr. Kovacevic, it turns out, is now director of Prijedor Hospital. He remains a proud nationalist. ?The facts showed it necessary to destroy Bosnia. I wanted to make this Serb land. Without Muslims, yes. We cannot live together. I still hold that view.”(33)

According to a reliable local source, the majority of aid to the Prijedor Hospital is siphoned off by Kovacevic and Mayor Stakic.

Kovacevic recently accepted a donation of 350,000 DM from UNHCR for the hospital in Prijedor, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was told in November by an U.N. Civil Affairs officer, who showed Human Rights Watch/Helsinki a news item which stated that the money was for the renovation of part of the hospital for use as a geriatric center.(34)

A confidential source with direct knowledge of hospital affairs told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki that the fuel, clothing, and medication given to the Prijedor hospital by the U.N. or IFOR/SFOR is taken by Kovacevic and Mayor Stakic. According to the source, fuel designated for the hospital is sold in gas stations in Prijedor and the other items are given to the Bosnian Serb Army or are sold on the black market.

Non-Serbs are afraid to use the hospital, because they are fearful they will not receive good treatment and also because treatment for those without medical insurance is prohibitively expensive. Most non-Serbs do not have medical insurance, having been disenfranchised after the takeover.

Milan Kovacevic, according to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki sources, had meetings in 1992 with the military and civilian police and SDS leaders about what to do about the non-Serb staff of the hospital. The heads of the hospital departments reportedly still work very closely with the SDS.(35)

According to Physicians for Human Rights and the U.N. Commission of Experts, during the war, a number of doctors “disappeared” and are believed to have been killed in Omarska, among them the following persons: Osman Mahmuljan, internist; Enes Begic, surgeon; Zeljko Sikora, gynecologist; and Razim Music, neuropsychiatrist (he may have survived, according to a Human Rights Watch/Helsinki source). The director of the hospital during the time of the “disappearances” was Radojka Elenko, who still works as an internist at the hospital.

According to a report by Physicians for Human Rights, “By May 1992, most non-Serb with white-collar jobs, including physicians, had been removed from their posts [in Prijedor]. . When Bosnian Serb forces captured the town of Prijedor, they took special care to detain “all the prominent people of Prijedor,” as one former resident of the town told PHR. This included health professionals, such as internist Osman Mahmuljan, gynecologist Zeljko Sikora, and ear-nose-and threat specialist Esad Sadikovic.”(36)

According to reports, during the war, the heads of the hospital were working in collaboration with the army and the police. “Police and military came into the hospital, made a list of all the staff of the hospital, and used that list to take people away from the hospital. They took some people away from the hospital directly, and others from their homes.”(37)

Roy Gutman of Newsday reported: “The [non-Serb] mayor was deported to the notorious Omarska camp, while his wife, a physician and medical director of the Prijedor hospital, was told not to report to work. On May 28, 1992, all hospital personnel were stopped on their way to work and divided into groups based on presumed ethnicity. Only Serbs were allowed into the hospital, while non-Serbs were either returned home or deported to concentration camps.”(38)

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