By Nerma Jelacic*Institute for War and Peace Reporting
August 10, 2005
Arrest of key war crimes suspect from eastern Bosnia may also bring vital information on Radovan Karadzic's network of supporters.
The arrest in Argentina this week of Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic signals an end to years of speculation about whether he would hand himself in voluntarily to the Hague tribunal. Police in Argentina seized one of the most wanted Bosnian war crimes suspects on an international arrest warrant on August 8, as he travelled into Buenos Aires. They subsequently confirmed that he was being held in a police station in the Argentine capital awaiting questioning by a judge. Lukic appeared in court on August 9, and according to Reuters news agency he expressed willingness to be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He also rejected accusations that he was responsible for war crimes in the Bosnian conflict.
The former paramilitary commander, who led a Serb unit in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad during the war, was indicted by prosecutors at the Hague tribunal in 1998. The Argentine media reported that his arrest, seven years later, was the result of a joint effort by Interpol and the local police force. News outlets said Lukic had arrived in Buenos Aires two weeks previously on a false passport and bearing large sums in cash, which he had then used to rent an apartment in the city. He reportedly paid three month's rent in cash to the landlord, who said he had no idea that his new tenant was a Serb. At the time of his arrest, Lukic was apparently returning from picking up his wife and seven-year-old daughter from Buenos Aires airport. Witnesses said he appeared calm as armed officers surrounded his car, although his wife and child were visibly upset. "They seemed to be calling on God's name," said eyewitnesses. The first pictures from the arrest scene suggested that Lukic had put on a considerable amount of weight since he was last photographed in public.
A Hague source told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that Lukic's arrest had been expected for a number of days before it actually happened. Officials from Serbia and Republika Srpska, RS, both of which have long faced international criticism over their lack of cooperation with the Hague tribunal, were quick to claim some of the credit for his capture. "The arrest [of Lukic] is the result of the increased operational activities of our security services in cooperation with the international community," announced Rasim Ljajic, the head of Serbia's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. The RS interior ministry also reported that the operation came about as a result of that ministry's own intensive intelligence work carried out in cooperation with police in Serbia and Montenegro and the international community. Lukic, who will turn 38 next month, is accused of perpetrating some of the bloodiest crimes of the war that raged in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995.
In 1998, Hague prosecutors charged him with 11 counts of crimes against humanity and nine other counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. According to the indictment, from mid-April 1992 to at least October 1994, Lukic and his subordinates in his paramilitary unit committed numerous crimes in the Visegrad municipality, including murder, torture, beatings, looting and destruction of property. The name of Lukic's paramilitary unit, which is alleged to have worked in cooperation with the RS police and with other military formations during the war, has never been precisely identified. Hague prosecutors, witnesses and the Serbian government have variously referred to it as the White Eagles, the Avengers or the Wolves.
The Serbian police arrested Lukic three times in the Nineties on charges including illegal possession of firearms, forging of documents and the murder of a Serb from Visegrad who had helped Bosnian Muslims flee the town. On each occasion, he was released subsequently. In September 2003, a court in Serbia sentenced Lukic in absentia to 20 years in jail on a different set of charges relating to the abduction and murder in 1993 of 16 Bosnian Muslims seized from a bus on the Serbian-Bosnian border. After the war, Lukic is alleged to have become involved in a variety of criminal rackets operating along the porous border between Serbia and the RS. For a long time he lived quite openly, keeping an apartment in Belgrade and often seen in eastern Bosnia and Serbia. It was only last year that he finally went underground, following the publication of a BCR investigation into his involvement in a lucrative drugs smuggling operation linked to the business network of wartime Bosnian Serb president and top Hague indictee Radovan Karadzic. "Money obtained from narcotics smuggling was vital in supporting Karadzic's life as a fugitive and also provided Lukic with steady income," a Bosnian intelligence service source told BCR at the time.
Last January, however, matters reached breaking point when, according to the same Bosnian intelligence source, Lukic quarrelled with Karadzic's armed body guards. A shootout reportedly erupted over the size of the cut that Lukic would receive for a particular drugs shipment and several sources told BCR that Lukic was injured. The confrontation left Lukic feeling insecure in Visegrad. And after his cousin and fellow indictee General Sreten Lukic was fired as Serbia's interior minister and deported to The Hague, Belgrade felt little better.
At various points, Lukic has reportedly expressed an interest in collaborating with the Hague tribunal. Last year, BCR obtained confirmation that he had in fact been talking to prosecutors there for several years. "Last year  he allegedly wanted to surrender," a tribunal official said at the time. "An operation was put in place to allow that to happen but he never showed up." Lukic's contacts with the Hague intensified as his relationship with Karadzic soured. The last attempt to set up a meeting between Lukic and representatives of the Hague tribunal culminated in the tragic death of his brother, Novica Lukic, who was never involved in war crimes. In a botched operation in April 2004, RS interior ministry special forces raided the Lukic family home in Visegrad. But Milan was not at the address and his brother was shot dead instead.
Lukic was next heard of on April 8, 2005, when a letter apparently written by the indictee himself reached Bosnian and Serbian media outlets. "I will go to the Hague after those who gave me the orders," the letter declared. "How can I go to the Hague without my superiors? Surely they should be there first, just as they were first to give orders during the war." Those indicted for crimes in the area include Lukic's cousin Sredoje Lukic, now also on the run, and Mitar Vasiljevic, who has been tried and sentenced by the Hague tribunal. Cases are currently proceeding in the Bosnian courts against Novo Rajak and Boban Simsic, both alleged to have been involved with Lukic's paramilitary unit. Rajak is on trial and Simsic is awaiting trial. But as the letter purportedly written by Lukic indicates, none of the top police, military or political leaders from Visegrad have been indicted for crimes committed under their command even though there is ample evidence of their involvement.
In an apparent reference to the BCR investigation of Lukic's split with Karadzic's network, the letter added, "After the murder of my brother, those same people [the ones he holds responsible for ordering the crimes] through their journalists and propaganda machine tried to proclaim me a traitor to Radovan Karadzic. What a shameless and unscrupulous lie. To whom am I supposed to give information when I am myself living as an outlaw?" It continued, "I never was a friend of Karadzic's nor was I close enough to him... to know what his movements are. I say publicly for an umpteenth time that for me [General Ratko] Mladic always has been and will remain the true hero and idol, and Karadzic the leader of my people, and that it was only thanks to them that the genocide of the last [Second World] war against the Serbian people did not repeat itself." The letter ended with Lukic expressing readiness to appear in court either in the Hague or in Sarajevo to back up his words concerning Visegrad's local wartime leaders. The server from which the electronic letter was sent was traced to Brazil. Four months later to the day, Lukic was arrested in Argentina.
The extradition issue will now be raised, since the initial hearing before an Argentine judge took place on August 9. As Lukic has been arrested on the back of an international warrant following an indictment by The Hague, the tribunal will have 30 days to put its case for extradition. At the same time, Serbia and Montenegro may also apply for him to be extradited to Belgrade to serve the 20-year sentence he has already received from a court there. However, as an international tribunal, The Hague's request is expected to take precedence over that Serbian courts. On the other hand, if reports are true that Lukic entered Argentina on a false passport, the local authorities may initiate their own criminal procedures. Even if - as seems most likely - Lukic is transferred to The Hague in the coming weeks, there will still be questions over where he is tried. Earlier this year, Hague prosecutors filed a request for the tribunal to transfer 18 cases, including Lukic's, to courts in the former Yugoslavia, as part of the completion strategy for closing the tribunal's work. In such a case, the trial would probably devolve to the newly-formed War Crimes Chamber within the state court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Legal experts say Belgrade could request that Lukic serve his 20-year Serbian sentence in a Bosnian prison. Bearing in mind current Bosnian laws, even if this request is granted and a trial for the Visegrad case also finds Lukic guilty, the maximum sentence he could serve in Bosnia is 45 years.
About the Author: Nerma Jelacic is IWPR/BIRN project manager in Bosnia.
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