AIM: start

MON, 24 DEC 2001 00:51:25 GMT

Slovenia vs. FRY

The Homeland Will Forgive

The evidently intolerant attitude of Slovenian officials towards certain forms of international cooperation and persecution of criminals is rather unusual. The public learned about this from official statements issued in connection with Mirko Oselj's breakout from prison in Sremska Mitrovica (FRY).

Ljubljana, December 15, 2001

Marko Oselj (aged 36) from Zgornji Brnik, near Ljubljana, unexpectedly became a new Superman in a part of the Slovenian press. Several days ago, after five years spent in Yugoslav prisons for smuggling 190 kilogrammes of heroin, together with his other three buddies, Oselj escaped to freedom through 21 metres long ditch. This act was received in Slovenia with approval. The media did not hesitate to inform the public that "conditions in Yugoslav prisons are beneath criticism" and that the escaped convict if successful in returning to Slovenia - "would be saved from all troubles, although an international APB has been put out after him". To make this whole mockery even greater, the Serbian police have allegedly already "admitted that they did not know where to look for the escaped criminals" and have given up the search. And since Marko Oselj "has not committed any punishable act in Slovenia, nothing can happen to him in his homeland, he only has to return," expressed a journalist of the Ljubljana daily the "Dnevnik" (The Daily) journalist his wishful thinking.

Immediately after the news about Oselj's escape appeared and in order to avoid any confusion, press officer of the Police Ministry, Franc Stanonik informed the public that the mentioned "APB doesn't apply to Slovenian nationals". Slovenia did not sign any agreements in the sphere of justice with Yugoslavia and the FRY had been criticised before for not accepting two European Conventions on the Transportation of Convicts and Referral of Criminal Proceedings. State Undersecretary of the Justice Ministry, Miha Wohinz spoke in the same tone. In front of TV cameras, this high state official explained to the public why someone who had been convicted in Yugoslavia was a free man in Slovenia: "Under Milosevic d ue to thatregime's character - we did not even consider signing any similar agreement. And even if we did, extradition of Slovenian nationals to another state is prohibited by the Slovenian Constitution".

A supporting atmosphere and satisfaction over the fact that one Slovene had escaped from the claws of Yugoslav judiciary masked an unusual fact today Marko Oselj is wanted all over the world and is considered a criminal in practically all states, except in his homeland, Slovenia. The media did not insist much on this detail, but managed to discover an oddity - twice before the inmates of prison in Sremska Mitrovica managed to escape in a similar way - first time in 1960 and, before that, in 1940's, when a "group of communist prisoners" fled from that dungeon. News on this spectacular jailbreak of a fellow-countryman from horrible Yugoslav jail put in the shade another similar national news which did not show local prisons in a very good light either. Recently, in "Povsetovi" prison in Ljubljana young Oliver Grujicic (21 years old) hanged himself; he was transferred to hospital in critical condition where he fought for his life for ten days. Prison administration did not inform either his parents or relatives of this, which was why his father, standing on his son's grave, demanded justice and explanation what had really happened in prison in front of TV cameras.

As far as Marko Oselj is concerned, he is a member of the so-called "Gorenjska heroin connection", a criminal group which a special department of the Republican Public Attorney's Office has been also chasing for several years. Actually, Oselj was the first to be caught on October 15, 1996 at the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border-crossing Gradina, near Dimitrovgrad. In a truck trailer full of green peppers, the Yugoslav customs officers discovered a load of 190 kilogrammes of heroin. The truck in which the drugs had been discovered belonged to Andrej Hartman, a truck operator from Spodnjih Bitenj, who several years later became principal defendant in a major trial against truckers - drug runners.

Another Slovenian truck driver who was arrested for drug running was 23 years old Matjaz Zavrl from Bitenj. He had been apprehended in Luzern (Switzerland) in March 1997 with a load of 25 kilos of heroin hidden between carpets. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Bostjan Mrak, (aged 33) from Skofja Loka, got the best deal. He fell into the hands of English police in August 1997. They discovered 157 kilos of heroin is his truck. Today he is free thanks to British judicial system, because he was accused of a grave criminal act - association in a criminal group. However, as the Prosecutor failed to prove this, he was finally acquitted. Upon his return to the homeland he forgot what during his trial he had told the British policemen and investigators about his connections and bosses, so that his testimony in Slovenia was useless.

As far as Marko Oselj is concerned, he had no such luck at his trial before the District Court in Pirot. It surfaced during that trial that he had agreed the "loading of peppers with a Bulgarian and one Meho" who knew Serbo-Croat language. He tried to justify himself by the fact that "the peppers were loaded for two whole days" while he was there only one day which was his explanation why he did not know anything about heroin on the truck. The court did not believe him and sentenced him to ten years in prison. Had he completed his sentence he would have been released in 2006. There is no doubt that in view of poor conditions in Yugoslav prisons Oselj fared the worst of all his associates from the "heroin team of Gorenjska truck drivers". Proceedings against his partners were concluded in 1997, when after being tried in Slovenia, an odd company of truck operators from the region of Gorenjska ended up in prison. Ivan Vodnik was caught in Hungary, and after that followed the arrests of the earlier mentioned Andrej Hartman (who fled from house detention even before his verdict became valid), Andrej Klemencic, Ivan Stanonik, Janez Simic, Gabro Guna and Darko Urh, who was acquitted because of the lack of evidence.

Marko Oselj is not the only convict on the run who will most probably try to get to his homeland because, for him, Slovenia is a salvation. Together with him escaped another prisoner from Sremska Mitrovica - Damjan Puzavac who had been sentenced back in 1999 to ten years in prison for murdering a Belgrade entrepreneur, extortion and robbery. During his trial, Puzavac claimed that he was not guilty and that he had confessed during pre-trial investigation because the police beat him, but in the end was, nevertheless, convicted. According to statements of the Slovenian public, media and officials, it seems that instead of fearing that the Yugoslav authorities would not be able to catch the escaped criminals, they were hoping that they would return to their homeland as soon as possible, just to get far away from the unpopular FRY. It thus turned out that a crime committed in the FRY and that same crime committed in Slovenia were not equally serious, just because of the state in which they have been committed.

One thing is certain - if they manage to get to Slovenia over Croatia - Oselj and Puzavac would be free men. This would not change even by the fact that representatives of criminal police of FRY and Slovenia met in Ljubljana immediately after the escape of prisoners from Sremska Mitrovica. The Slovenian public was briefly informed of "a very successful meeting" at which "closer cooperation in the field of car thefts and other forms of organised crime" was agreed. It was not clear whether the escaped prisoner had been a subject of discussion at all. And even if they had - there was the Slovenian Constitution as insurmountable obstacle - as prominent members of the judicial system pointed out.

As far as the cooperation between the police of Serbia and Slovenia is concerned, it has never been interrupted, because even under Milosevic's regime these two police forces cooperated, which was agreed between State Undersecretaries during official visits. It is thus harder to understand that in the year after "democratic changes" in Serbia this cooperation did not move forward, either in the administration of justice or police cooperation. Moreover, the police of FRY and Slovenia have been discussing and agreeing only problems which were of interest for member states of the European Union. Finally, the lack of bilateral agreement on the extradition of criminals could be useful only to criminals of these countries.

The evidently intolerant attitude of Slovenian officials towards certain forms of international cooperation and persecution of criminals is no less unusual. Public statements concerning Oselj's escape sounded like guarantees of asylum. On the other hand, the official Slovenian politics harshly condemned every example of non-cooperation with the international community so that cases of non-extradition of Yugoslav, Croatian, Bosnian and other nationals to the International Tribunal in the Hague or other states was labelled retrograde phenomena of the deviation from generally accepted practice of civilised nations.

All these big stories about principles burst like a soap bubble when confronted with specific examples. This was best shown in Marko Oselj's case. Constitutional prohibition of extradition "of Slovenia's own nationals" to another state as a "legal manoeuvre" was frequently described in Slovenia as a "trick" of fallen dictators, which overnight became a means of protecting a domestic drug runner. If this practice is continued, Slovenia might soon resemble Australia of several hundred years ago, when it was emigrant paradise for criminals. Or, it might look like an inverted picture of SFRY in its last days of existence, since in contrast to Slovenia the SFRY did not wholeheartedly take its criminals, but exported them in an organised fashion, sending them to "temporarily work" abroad. Naturally, this was not a very convenient solution (especially not for other European countries), but that doesn't mean that the patent of "pardoning the escaped criminals" due to legal loopholes, is any better.

Igor Mekina