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A Serbian woman in Belgrade watching video evidence of apparent war crimes
9 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Serbian television viewers recently saw a video depicting Serbian paramilitary police participating in the killing of Muslim civilians near Srebrenica in July 1995. The government took quick action against the individuals shown in the video, but the effect of the images on Serbian public opinion is mixed.
Geoffrey Nice, who is the lead prosecutor at the war crimes trial of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, showed the court a video on 1 June that depicted a group of bloodied Bosnian Muslims held by an armed Serbian paramilitary police unit called the Scorpions at Srebrenica in July 1995. The Muslims were then driven in trucks to an area where they were shot by their captors amid a torrent of verbal abuse. Nice stressed that the killers were not Bosnian Serbs but rather part of the "infamous Scorpions unit, under the command of the secret services, or DB, of Serbia's Interior Ministry, and within...Milosevic's chain of command and control." Before the men tortured and killed their victims, they were blessed by a Serbian Orthodox priest.
The video was shown as part of the cross-examination of defense witness Obrad Stevanovic, who was a top Interior Ministry official under Milosevic. Stevanovic told the court that his men were not involved in the massacre and that he would have known had they taken part, a point he repeated on 6 June. If the tape is accepted by the court as genuine, then it could constitute the long-sought "smoking gun" clearly linking Serbian forces under Milosevic's command to the massacre of up to 8,000, mainly Muslim, males after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995.
The video was broadcast by several Serbian television stations on 2 June. Rasim Ljajic, who chairs Serbia and Montenegro's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, said in Belgrade the next day that several people were arrested after being identified in the tape. Legal charges were subsequently filed against 10 people, at least eight of whom are in police custody. The two fugitives are believed to be abroad, RFE/RL reported.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said of the video: "Serbia is deeply shocked. Those images are proof of a monstrous crime committed against persons of a different religion. And the guilty had walked as free men until now." The president added: "The killers had walked freely among us, on our streets, behaving as if they were ordinary, honorable citizens. All those who committed war crimes must be held accountable; only in this way will we be able to have a future. We must not close our eyes to the cruelty that took place." He added that he is ready "to go to Srebrenica to pay tribute to innocent people of another nationality."
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that "it is important for our public that we reacted immediately, and that based on this shocking and horrible footage several of those who were involved in this crime have been arrested and will be brought to justice."
Most observers took particular note of Kostunica's remarks because he has a much more pronounced nationalist profile than Tadic. Kostunica usually stresses that all sides committed atrocities during the conflicts of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia and denies any particular guilt on the part of Serbia or Serbs. Some pundits even suggested that Kostunica's tough remarks about the footage and the quick action against the men shown in the video were designed to prepare the public for an impending arrest of leading indictee and former Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic. Other observers suggested that the evidence presented in the video constitutes a moral imperative for the Serbian authorities to ferret out and extradite Mladic as soon as possible.
Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor and not usually given to praising the Belgrade authorities, said in the Serbian capital that the arrests were "a brilliant operation because in few hours [the Serbian authorities] were able to identify the perpetrators." She added that she hopes the authorities will be equally decisive in arresting Mladic.
In any event, most observers concluded that the video is indeed the "smoking gun" and provides irrefutable evidence of Serbian participation in the massacre of civilians.
In addition, RFE/RL obtained a similar, exclusive video showing members of the Scorpions and Serbia's elite Red Berets engaged in other bloody activities in the Cazinska Krajina area of western Bosnia in April 1995 (see http://www.danas.org/article/2005/06/03/8d77c4b2-5274-44e3-b29d-0570ac306fdd.html). The Red Berets were commanded by Milorad Ulemek (aka Legija), who has been linked to the March 2003 killing of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
London's "The Guardian" wrote on 3 June that the Srebrenica video served to "provoke a bout of soul-searching in Serbia, parts of which are still in denial over the horrors of the Bosnian war." But at least one unidentified Belgrade woman had reservations, saying: "I truly doubt that the video will help [alter] public opinion. [Showing it] will cause a further division among the people. I doubt that the film will help the families of the victims. As far as I'm concerned, the film shouldn't be broadcast."
An RFE/RL program on 6 June noted a similar ambivalence. Jovan Mirilo of Sid, a town in Vojvodina on the Croatian border, is a key witness in the video affair. Some of his friends and neighbors wondered aloud why he willingly brought potential trouble into his life and that of his family by coming forward with his story. The broadcast also suggested that at least some Serbian authorities are not in any particular hurry to protect the Mirilos.
Another aspect of the video affair is the presence of the Serbian Orthodox priest, who was subsequently identified as Father Gavrilo from Vojvodina. Some believers attribute special healing powers to him and seek him out from all over Serbia, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 6 June.
His role in blessing the Scorpions led to a discussion in Serbia and Montenegro as to whether he was justified in doing so, RFE/RL reported. Some observers found his behavior disgusting, while others pointed out that one of the duties of priests is to bless soldiers going off to war, and that the man in the video was simply doing his job.
As of 6 June, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) had made no official comment about the video or the priest. RFE/RL noted that the SPC seemed to be almost the only institution in Serbia that had not commented on the events depicted in the tape. Some people in Bosnia and Croatia pointed out that the SPC has also remained silent about Serbian war crimes committed during the conflicts of the 1990s in general, adding that time has come for Patriarch Pavle and the SPC to discuss the church's role during those wars.