Balkan war criminals are welcomed back to public life, to the alarm of rights groups
Two decades after the bloodshed that tore apart communist Yugoslavia, the men convicted for their destructive roles are increasingly present in public life, especially in Serbia
Jailed for committing atrocities in the conflict-riven 1990s, Balkan war criminals are being welcomed back to the limelight, resuming political posts, advising top officials and preaching in church.
Two decades after the bloodshed that tore apart communist Yugoslavia, the men convicted for their destructive roles are increasingly present in public life, especially in Serbia, where many of them remain popular.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic in January received Momcilo Krajisnik, a wartime Bosnian Serb leader who was released after serving two thirds of a 20-year jail sentence handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague.
Krajisnik, convicted of crimes against humanity including the deportation and persecution of non-Serbs, discussed with the president “the protection of Serb people’s rights in the region,” according to a statement from Nikolic’s office.
The meeting came nearly four years after several thousand well-wishers lined the streets of Krajisnik’s Bosnian hometown Pale to welcome him back from prison.
Like other regional war criminals upon release, he was flown by government helicopter.
Last month, Serbia’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) invited former Yugoslav army officer Veselin Sljivancanin to speak at an event. He earlier spent more than six years in jail over the 1991 massacre of some 260 people in the Croatian town of Vukovar.
Asked if his participation in last month’s event was suitable, Vladimir Gak, a senior SNS official and mayor of the northern town of Indjija, repeatedly replied that Sljivancanin “is a free citizen of Serbia”.
Protesters from the non-governmental Youth Initiative for Human Rights interrupted the event with a banner that read: “War criminals must shut up so we can talk about victims”.
The activists said they were beaten over the protest, while top SNS officials called them “fascists” and “hooligans” and demanded that they be punished by the authorities.
For Izabela Kisic, executive director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, the ruling party “sends a message of impunity and ignores the families of victims” by bringing convicted war criminals back to public life.
The 1990s conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo claimed more than 130,000 lives, while more than 10,000 have never been accounted for. Millions lost their homes.
Kisic believes Serbia has never gone through “a process of denazification like Germany had” after the second world war.
“Such participation of war criminals in public life in Germany would have been unimaginable,” she said.
In another example, former deputy premier Nikola Sainovic was appointed to a top body of Serbia’s Socialist Party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, after serving two thirds of an 18-year sentence for crimes against ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo war.
“His supporters in eastern Serbia do not see him as a war criminal, they like him a lot,” a top party official said, adding that Sainovic “is experienced and very useful to the party”.
Both President Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who together formed the populist SNS party, have ultranationalist pasts and were ministers under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Both men were also once close allies of far-right Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who was tried for war crimes by the ICTY but eventually acquitted.
After returning to Serbia in late 2015 after 12 years in detention, Seselj led his party back into parliament last year as the strongest opposition force, and he now hopes for success in a presidential election due in April.
Political analyst Boban Stojanovic believes the publicity given to convicted war criminals is a ploy by the ruling party to “gain some political points” ahead of the vote.
“The SNS has won over a huge number of Seselj’s Radical Party voters. Among them there are certainly people who still consider war criminals as heroes,” Stojanovic said.
On the streets of the capital Belgrade, T-shirts for sale bear the face of Ratko Mladic, the notorious Bosnian Serb military chief during the war.
Mladic awaits his verdict from the UN court over his role in Bosnia’s war, notably the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the worst atrocity in Europe since the second world war.
The rehabilitation of war criminals after their release is not limited to Serbia.
Fikret Abdic was recently elected mayor of the western Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa, having served time for setting up prison camps during the war that housed 5,000 prisoners, more than 300 of whom were killed.
In Croatia, local media have reported that Dario Kordic, a Bosnian Croat who served more than 16 years in prison for his role in a 1993 massacre of 116 civilians, now often preaches in Catholic churches.