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Bosnia: Croatian Court Convicts Warlord Abdic

A court in Croatia yesterday convicted Bosnian presidential hopeful and former warlord, Fikret Abdic, of war crimes and sentenced him to a maximum 20 years in prison for his role in the detention and killing of fellow Muslims during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Prague, 1 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A district court in the Croatian city of Karlovac has convicted Bosnian magnate, Muslim warlord, and presidential hopeful Fikret Abdic of war crimes. Abdic was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The indictment alleged that during the 1992-95 Bosnian war at least three people died while held at an internment camp under Abdic's control. It also noted that the camps were the scene of forced labor by prisoners of war, involuntary service in paramilitary units, and intentional starvation.

Chief judge, Jasminka Jerinic-Musnjak, read out the verdict: "The defendant, Fikret Abdic, charged with Paragraph 43, sections 1 and 2, Subsection 1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Croatia, is sentenced to prison for a term of 20 years."

The judge told the court how important it is for a "civilized, democratic society to condemn war crimes, especially when committed by senior officials." And she alleged that during the 10-month trial Abdic had shown no regret for the suffering of those interned in the camp.

Abdic was tried in Croatia because he holds dual Bosnian and Croatian citizenship and had been living in exile in the Croatian city of Rijeka. Bosnian authorities tried to persuade Croat authorities to extradite Abdic. Instead, Zagreb offered to prosecute Abdic in a Croatian court.

Croatian police arrested Abdic in June last year. In September, he went on trial in Karlovac, a Croatian market town that had been on the front line in the 1991-95 war with separatist Krajina Serbs.

District state prosecutor Ljubica Fiskus-Sumanja expressed elation over the verdict in an interview with RFE/RL's Zagreb bureau. "Fifteen years for one charge, 10 years for the other, combined it's [limited to the maximum] 20 years. We're satisfied because we couldn't have gotten any more. That's the maximum punishment according to the applicable law," Fiskus-Sumanja said.

Abdic's lawyer, Davorin Popovic, said he will appeal the case. "All I can say is that there is the possibility of appeal and everything will be resolved in legal institutions."

Abdic had planned to run for the Bosnian presidency in general elections on 5 October. However, Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said yesterday he expects that following the court ruling, Abdic will be barred from running for 20 years.

Meanwhile, several hundred Abdic supporters from Velika Kladusa who were gathered outside the Karlovac courthouse were upset by the verdict and chanted Abdic's nickname, "Babo," or "Papa." The deputy head of Abdic's party, the Democratic People's Union (DNZ), Rifet Dolic, told reporters the outcome was predictable. "It's perfectly clear that this was a political trial and that there was pressure on the Republic of Croatia [by Bosnia, for a conviction]," Dolic said.

Abdic was the most powerful man in western Bosnia in the 1980s. He was an industrialist at the helm of the region's main employer, Agrokomerc in the town of Velika Kladusa, a huge, state-owned agro-industrial and pharmaceuticals conglomerate that declared bankruptcy in 1987.

He allegedly earned millions of dollars running the company, but in the final years of communist rule in Yugoslavia he was convicted of fraud.

He nevertheless remained a popular folk hero and in 1990, in the first democratic elections for Bosnia's collective presidency, Abdic took first place. However, he subsequently threw his support behind fellow Muslim Alija Izetbegovic to lead the Bosnian presidency as the old Yugoslav federation disintegrated.

Abdic is alleged to have collaborated with the Yugoslav secret police when Serb forces briefly kidnapped Izetbegovic at the outbreak of hostilities in Sarajevo in May 1992 and was prepared to take power from Izetbegovic. But the Serbs released Izetbegovic and launched the siege of Sarajevo and of other Muslim strongholds across Bosnia. Abdic returned to Velika Kladusa, which along with neighboring Bihac was soon surrounded by Krajina-Serb and Bosnian-Serb forces.

Many residents considered Abdic their savior in the face of the Serb encirclement. Unable to manufacture under wartime conditions, he leased his idle factory grounds to the United Nations to serve as a distribution center for humanitarian aid.

Abdic maintained relations with Serb rebel forces as well as with top leaders in Zagreb and Belgrade, and in September 1993 with their backing announced the establishment of the "Autonomous Region of Western Bosnia." Abdic launched an offensive against Bosnian government forces in Bihac that lasted until August 1994, but three months later he declared a new short-lived autonomous region.

Abdic was reported to have set up camps where he interned captured Bosnian soldiers as well as local civilians who disagreed with his Muslim separatist activities. He eventually fled to Croatia.

In August 1996, a year after Croatian forces lifted the siege of the Bihac pocket and ended the 3 1/2-year war in Bosnia, the Bihac district prosecutor indicted Abdic for war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war.

Abdic proceeded to run for president of Bosnia that autumn from his Croatian exile but attracted virtually no support outside of Velika Kladusa.