SUN, 16 NOV 1997 19:37:08 GMT
AIM Zagreb, 10 November, 1997
After almost two months of marking time, the investigation against Miro Bajramovic, Nebojsa Hodak, Munib Suljic and Igor Mikola, former soldiers of the unit of Tomislav Mercep, "the Vukovar Napoleon", accused of war crimes committed on the territory of Pakrac in late 1991, has finally started moving. Actually, the investigation against them was launched already in 1992, but due to political pressures of the Croatian state top leadership (i.e. of Vladimir Seks, who was public prosecutor at that time), it was abandoned in order to be "defrosted" after Miro Bajramovic's confession published in September issue of the Split "Feral Tribune" magazine.
At that time Bajramovic stated that he had personally killed eighty-two people, and his unit - which he called "The Autumn Rains" - 280 people in Pakracka Poljana and between 90 and 110 in Gospic. On account of some of these killings, which had been discovered already then, 17 soldiers from Mercep's unit had been under investigation in 1992 - among others Mercep also - but the indictment against him has never been issued. The best known case which Mercep's men are responsible for is that of the Zagreb butcher Mihajlo Zec, a Serb, and his wife and daughter. On account of an alleged irregularity in the proceedings, the perpetrators of this crime had been acquitted although they have confessed to committing this crime. Three of them, Hodak, Mikola and Suljic, are again in prison.
On Tuesday, November 4, excavations have started on locations at which it is assumed that bodies of some victims executed back in autumn 1991, have been buried. Zdenko Posavec, a judge of the Investigating Centre of the District Court of Zagreb came to the location near Pakrac, on the road between the villages of Janja Lipa and Poljana. The first task was the excavation of the body of Aleksandar Sasa Antic, Mercep's soldier, whom his fellow-combatant Igor Mikola killed suspecting him of being a Serbian agent. Two witnesses - for the time being it is not known who are the persons in question - took the investigation team to a place near the road connecting these two villages where, according to them, the body of the late Antic was buried. However, the excavation which lasted until 1.00 p.m. did not reveal any traces of the body. In cooperation with a commission of the Croatian Government, the UNPROFOR investigators already carried out certain excavations at that same location. It is known that they came to certain conclusions, but it has not yet been published what results are in question.
Numerous sceptics were not surprised by such results of the first exhumation. Namely, rumour has it for some time now that - during this five-year moratorium on the investigation against Tomislav Mercep's men - evidence has been removed. It is claimed that Antic's body was excavated long ago from the place where it had been first buried and burned with kerosene, and that the same happened with the body of Marina Nuic, killed by Antun Jurgec. According to Bajramovic, she was buried under an oak-tree, also in Janja Lipa. Both victims, Marina Nuic and Sasa Antic, were Croats by nationality, which probably influenced the court's decision to look for their bodies first. Namely, the Croatian public is still bitter over the fact that the majority of those indicted by the Hague are Croats and that, except for Slavko Dokmanovic, not a single Serb from Croatia has been sent to the Hague to answer charges of war crimes. The fact that the original list of 850 Serbs suspected of war crimes, was reduced to 25 also gives rise to resentment. Be it as it may, Antic's body was not found. The imprisoned "Mercep's men" decided to defend themselves by keeping silent so that they were of no use during the exhumation. They think that it is up to the prosecution to prove these murders, find the bodies and other proof and that today - six years later - that will be very difficult to do. The fact that some witnesses who testified against the "Mercep's men" back in 1992 have in the meantime changed their minds and will not testify also plays into their hands. They have started normal lives, while Mercep and his soldiers are free and nothing had happened to them till now and there are no indications that anything ever will, so that they believe that it is best to keep silent.
In any case, Bajramovic himself, who knows his former fellow-combatants best, lives in fear for the safety of his wife and children who are under age: there is constantly a police guard on duty in front of their house in Banija. Today he is in the prison hospital at Simunska cesta in Zagreb where he had a jaw surgery. There are two versions as to the reasons of this operation. According to one he needed it because of the injury he had sustained during his arrest; according to the other he has a jaw cancer which was the true motive behind his public confession. He writes letters to his wife daily, usually as much as five pages. All five prisoners are kept strictly apart, and in contrast to Bajramovic who has changed his statement several times in order to finally decide to defend himself with silence and who will be taken for psychiatric evaluation, the other three detained Mercep's soldiers are self-confident and claim that they will escape punishment again.
However, this time it seems that their optimism is ungrounded. It is rumoured that a lady judge from the Hague Tribunal recently paid a visit to the Zagreb District Court inquiring about the investigation against Bajramovic and other suspects so that it is obvious that this trial will be under a careful scrutiny of the international public. There are other circumstances which are not in favour of the suspects: during the 1992 investigation they openly confessed to some of the crimes (Nebojsa Hodak confessed to the murder to Sasa Antic), and bodies of some of their victims have been found (some of them, like the 12 victims discovered in a basement in Bujavica, were identified).
The are reliable witnesses, as well as evidence. Police records from 1992 clearly show that, for example, Sinisa Rimac - today a decorated officer of the Croatian Army - should know where Antic was buried as he was present at his execution. What is more, Rimac had questioned him just before his execution whether Antic was working for the State Security Service which he suspected for some time...
Sinisa Rimac was also present when Marina Nuic was killed so that it will be extremely strange if he fails to explain some things to the court. During the 1992 questioning all other "Mercep's men" accused each other so that there are many indications and ample evidence. The legal situation has also changed in the meantime as, after the signing of the most recent package of agreements on the normalization of relations with the FR Yugoslavia, witnesses will be able to give verified depositions in Yugoslavia which should be valid before the Croatian courts. Four potential witnesses from Pakracka Poljana live today on the territory of the FR Yugoslavia and the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, if it is true that 280 people were executed in Pakracka Poljana, as Bajramovic claims, it would have been impossible to remove all the evidence.
At some locations, like the fish-ponds in the village of Poljana, this evidence would be very hard to remove as these fish-ponds were second largest in the former Yugoslavia and cover the area of 1,200 ha. In order to remove all bodies that have been dumped into them, it would be necessary to empty them of all water, which requires both much time, money and machinery.
According to what is known so far, the indictment for Pakracka Poljana will be issued very soon, but it is too early to say how many persons will be charged and what qualifications will be used. Some important protagonists of this story - starting with Miro Bajramovic - have accused even certain former Croatian Ministers for issuing direct execution orders. Thus, Bajramovic claimed that Ivan Vekic, Minister of the Interior in the Government of the National Unity which was in power at that time in Croatia, had ordered two murders: of Milos Ivosevic, Director of the Croatian Customs Service, and of Stevan Brajenovic - who survived the Pakracka Poljana massacre.
If Bajramovic were to repeat in court his statement given to "Feral Tribune" whereby he accused Vekic, the case could acquire unexpected proportions, the more so because Bajramovic claimed that they had received an order from the Supreme Command to reduce the percentage of the Serbian population in Gospic, after which a great crime was truly committed against the local Serbs in Gospic. Some believe that the charges will go as high as Tomislav Mercep, commander of the unit which had committed numerous war crimes, but others doubt that this investigation will even include Mercep. The four imprisoned men are undoubtedly guilty of a large number of crimes committed, but there is also no doubt that in this story they were only relatively unimportant executors. However, judging by all, everyone who evades prosecution in Croatia will end up in the Hague as the Tribunal's files on "Pakracka Poljana" and "Gospic" have undoubtedly been completed.