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Interview: Srdjan Dizdarevic

Won't Sell Out Honor or Ass

The human drama through which, thanks to his dedication to high ethical and humane principles, the president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia-Hercegovina is going through, is a terrifying example of totalitarianism described in the works of Hannah Arendt. What are the chances of an individual in a clash with the USA, Bosnian authorities, Avaz, Slobodna Bosna, Branko Todorovic and Slavo Kukic? What does the horrific public silence of an overwhelming majority of BH intellectuals, NGO activists and distinguished individuals indicate? Srdjan Dizdarevic, an intellectual, fluent speaker of several languages, and a disappointed man, talks with Dani

by Senad PECANIN

Dani, Sarajevo, Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, B-H, January 25, 2002

DANI: Mr. Dizdarevic, why did the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in BH get involved and closely follow the developments in connection with the extradition of the so-called "Algerian group" to the US authorities?

DIZDAREVIC: We were approached by the wives of some of the arrested Algerians and we decided to investigate those complaints. It became clear that several things were done illegally. First the citizenship of those naturalized citizens who had BH citizenship was stripped off illegally. I want to immediately stress that I do not intend to argue whether they obtained BH citizenship illegally, possibly using falsified documents etc. But, even if a citizenship is illegally obtained, it can only be annulled in a legal procedure. Therefore, in this case the law states that their BH citizenship could have been annulled either by a court verdict or, for example, by a decision of the Ministry of Civilian Affairs of BH, after a request made by the Federation BH Ministry of Internal Affairs, and that decision had to be confirmed by the Council of Ministers. Instead, in this case the decisions were signed mostly by Tomislav Limov, deputy federation BH Minister of Police, and that was illegal. Secondly they did not have the right to appeal after their BH citizenship was annulled. They had the right to file a lawsuit but, as far as I know, those suits were not taken into consideration. The next violation of the law is related to the deportation decision. The law prescribes a procedure for the deportation as well. The fact is that at one point the deportation decision was signed by the Minister for Human Rights, Kresimir Zubak, and that other decisions were apparently signed by Tomislav Limov. These decisions also do not envisage adequate right of appeal. The next violation of the law took place on January 17 when the Federation BH Supreme Court ordered that the Algerians be released from custody after spending three months in prison. The very same day the Human Rights Court, whose decisions are final and must be implemented by the authorities, made the temporary decision which banned deportation or extradition of these individuals until February 11, the date when the Human Rights Court will have the next regular session. These decisions were also violated. Algerians were not released from custody, but were, upon their departure from prison, picked up by the local police forces which, according to what we later learned, turned them over to the American authorities, which then deported them, probably to the military base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as the final destination. There is another important legal issue, which makes all these violations of human rights that much more egregious. Bosnia-Hercegovina, as a country in which the European Convention about Protection of Human Rights has primacy over all other laws, cannot extradite citizens to the countries that practice death penalty, unless the host country takes the obligation of not applying the death penalty in the specific case. The second limitation is that they cannot be extradited to countries that use torture and in which there is danger of death by torture. Extradition, deportation, whichever way you refer to this act, to Guantanamo Bay has yet another incriminating circumstance. Guantanamo Bay is not under the jurisdiction of the USA Constitution, so that the prisoners held in Guantanamo are absolutely not guaranteed any rights, even those stemming from the US Constitution.

Please, could you repeat for us what you said at the press conference held after these events.

I pretty much said what I've just talked about. I said that in all of this human rights were violated by, according to the information I had at my disposal at the time, the Federation BH Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry for Human Rights, Ministry for Civilian Affairs, and the Council of Ministers, as well as parts of the international community that insisted and exerted pressure on the BH authorities to do what they did. I was referring specifically to the American pressure. Therefore, I assessed that this was a serious blow to the attempt to establish a state based on law and the rule of law in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In the last six years we've made small advances regarding the respect for and dignity of courts, towards respect of European and international human rights conventions. This act practically destroyed all of these advances. The European Convention About Protection of Human Rights was not respected, the BH Constitution was not respected, decisions of highest courts in this country, such as the Supreme Court of Federation BH and the Human Rights Court, were not respected... I assessed that as a serious blow against the rights of citizens in Bosnia-Hercegovina, I assessed that the citizens have the right to be concerned and scared, because they were denied an opportunity to defend their rights in courts, through application of laws.

Would you care to comment on the statements according to which "there is no reason for concern in the BH public, or the involvement of the Helsinki Committee, because these were merely six Algerians who illegally obtained BH citizenship"?

First the universal nature of human rights is their basic characteristic, which means that those rights equally belong to everyone, and in every individual case, regardless of ethnic, religious or any other affiliation of the individual. Therefore, defense of human rights is necessary in every case where they are violated and that is why the fate of these men is important. In that, no one normal has the intention to defend terrorists, or people who would in any manner be involved in terrorist activities, simply because I believe that there can be no justification for terrorism. As far as terrorism in my home, my homeland, is concerned, it is a threat to stability and the life of mine and life of my fellow citizens. Therefore, I do not hesitate to condemn terrorism. But, terrorism must be proven just like all other crimes must be proven. That must take place in a trial and requires respect of law and appropriate treatment of prisoners. Therefore, this can be a dangerous precedent for further violations of human rights. Let me ask you something. After this, will anyone respect decisions of the Human Rights Court? Will now everyone losing a case in front of the Human Rights Court have the right to ignore its decision? Therefore, the issue is the respect for principles, for the rule of law and human rights and it is absolutely unimportant whose rights are being violated.

According to the information that is not secret anymore, the behavior of the BH authorities in this case was influenced by the forceful pressure of the US officials in Bosnia. What is your interpretation of this pressure and the reaction of the BH authorities to it?

It is absolutely clear, some of our officials did not even hide it from the public, that pressure was applied. Perhaps they did not use that word but, for example, even Minister Zubak said that Americans, I paraphrase, said that the local institutions should make a decision but if the Algerian group were not extradited they would change their attitude towards BH, and possibly pull out of Bosnia etc... That is blackmail and pressure. I also had that in mind, as well as a series of pressures exerted on different ministers, certain members of the Council of Ministers, the Coordination Council for Struggle Against Terrorism, the Federation BH Ministry of Internal Affairs... But I am also aware that state officials have the obligation to protect constitutions of their countries, their legal norms, including international conventions. That is a part of their job. I am convinced that the competent individuals in BH authorities will have to be held responsible for these actions. If not by the local or international courts, then they will definitely have to take moral responsibility for their actions.

Could the benefits of the decision to bow to American threats be bigger than the damage that occurred because of the violation of the Constitution of their own country?

I think that the damage was huge and cannot compare it with any potential benefits. This damage can only be removed by legal measures, therefore through correction of the mistakes that were made and, above all, if we make sure not to repeat these mistakes in the future.

Mr. Dizdarevic, I heard more than a month ago from several members of the Governing Board of the Helsinki Committee of BH about very fierce and surprising pressures of the American officials in Bosnia, whose goal was above all to discredit you personally. Could you tell us how much you know about that and to what extent these pressures were reflected on the work of the Committee?

I must say that that did not influence the work of the Committee, because I tried to keep principles in mind in the carrying out of functions that Helsinki Committee must have in protection of human rights and implementation of international conventions. But it is clear that there were pressures. There were direct pressures as well. One of them was the letter sent to me by General Sylvester, SFOR commander. He demanded that we meet. There was also a conversation which was a sort of pressure. I also know that some of my colleagues from the Governing Board were pressured to condemn my statements, what I said regarding this case, that they were offered even previously written statements and press releases, and that they were pressured to hold press conferences. I also know that some circles have been fabricating lies about me personally, about my alleged links with extremist Islamic circles in Bosnia-Hercegovina and abroad. These pressures went as far as to question my mental health, so that I am aware that this attempt to discredit me personally has no limits, scruples or limitations. They also served lies to some of my collaborators and tried to incite them against me and create a split in the Helsinki committee, tried to disable, paralyze or destroy the Committee.

However, these activities have finally achieved some results. Two members of the Governing Board, Slavo Kukic and Branko Todorovic, have condemned your views in a press release. What do you think about their statement?

I was shocked by that statement. First, because we so far haven't communicated in that manner; secondly, because after my press conference a meeting of the Governing Board was held, and the two of them attended that meeting. Therefore, they had an opportunity to raise this issue in front of the Governing Board or to suggest that an extraordinary session of the Governing Board be held to discuss these issues. Obviously, the goal was not to have this discussed within the Helsinki Committee. If their intentions were honorable, there were many different methods and ways to express their disagreement. However, I now do not understand what it is that they disagree with, because in that case they would have to also condemn High UN Commissioner for Human Rights [Mary Robinson], UN Secretary General, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Helsinki Federation... Therefore, I am not the only person to make these assertions; the similarity between the statements and assessments made by the mentioned individuals and institutions and my statements is obvious.

What is your interpretation of Kukic's and Todorovic's statement in which they say that Helsinki Committee had not discussed views you presented at your press conference? What is the usual practice in the work of the Committee?

The Governing Board typically does not meet and decide about every press release, about every public statement and every letter. The Governing Board has a different role, it establishes general tone of activities of the Committee, sets the program of work, controls finances and naturally discusses human rights, but not in the sense that it is necessary to consult the Governing Board regarding every public appearance or a press release. During the last seven years we've published hundreds of press releases, hundreds of public statements, open letters, interviews... Usually, in those activities, I or other members of the Helsinki Committee, if there was a need, consulted our colleagues, especially regarding the issues where we were not sure and especially when it was necessary to cross-check opinions with the colleagues. On many occasions I consulted my collaborators, especially regarding those fields in which they have expertise, and that mode of work hasn't been questioned by anyone so far, neither regarding the organization nor the content of the press releases and public appearances.

Have you spoken to Todorovic or Kukic since their statement?

I talked to Slavko Kukic, who repeated that he backs the views expressed in the statement. I also talked to Todorovic, who told me that it had been requested from him not only to condemn me in this manner, but to also hold a pres conference at which he would go further and make additional accusations to discredit me. What I really want to do is to face them, to look each other in the eye at a meeting of the Governing Board, to definitely discuss that, to cross the arguments, and then approach the Assembly of the Helsinki Committee with some sort of a request that the Helsinki Committee take a stand and give an assessment of these events, so that all of us are held responsible based on the decision of the Assembly, as the highest body of the Committee.

You said that Todorovic had told you that it had been requested from him to hold a press conference. Who requested that from him?

I would prefer if he answered that question.

I have been persistently trying to reach him, but he has been deliberately avoiding me. I would like to know how you personally feel after the statement made by Kukic and Todorovic, considering that you had worked for years together and, as far as I know, used to be friends?

It hurts, a lot. I am struggling to accept that even now. First, I think that what they did was unethical; as I said, there were other ways to express and articulate that difference in opinion and to face each other and see who is right and who wrong. Besides that, I have no reason to believe that our views regarding the protection of human rights are so drastically different. Obviously, something else is the problem. But, unfortunately, after all this there will be a blot on the history of the Helsinki Committee, an ugly blow to a movement that is honorable and that in different ways had support and was respected both abroad and inside Bosnia-Hercegovina. Finally, this movement tried to directly assist citizens who approached us in more than 20,000 cases. Therefore, this is also a blow to them and the idea that we so forcefully defend - that this country should become a country where all individual rights will be expected.

Aren't you facing a paradoxical situation? On the one hand, for many years, from the very beginning of work of the Helsinki Committee, you've pointed out undemocratic behavior of extremist Islamic groups in Bosnia-Hercegovina, because of which you were personally a frequent target of their attacks, threats and insults; on the other hand, you are now on the same side?

If my memory serves me well, I was the first person to draw attention to the presence of foreigners in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the former soldiers of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina or people who arrived later. I pointed out that their presence in, for example, the Serb village of Bocinja, presents obvious danger for Bosnia-Hercegovina; that their presence is something that is foreign to Bosnia-Hercegovina both regarding their practice of Islam and ideology. I had at the time reasons to point out the potential danger, that those circles may later produce something that would be an attack on security, that could possibly turn into terrorism. I advocated that the way in which they acquired citizenship be examined first, that that be regulated legally; I advocated that they be moved from houses they do not own and that they allow the owners to return. I fought also against all deviations and radicalism, medieval understanding of the role of religion in state matters, attempts to organize Bosnia-Hercegovina based on Islamic law, I fought for secular Bosnia-Hercegovina and on many occasions - directly with these groups, or with parts of the SDA, or parts of the Islamic community - I had heated debates. Attempts to discredit me were also very forceful, and there were also some anonymous threats and ugly attacks on my integrity and the integrity of my family. But I, as in every other case, do not think that one should bear a grudge, or run away from principles depending on the issue at hand. When in this case their rights were endangered, it was totally natural that I first raise my voice. They have their rights, regardless of the chasm between us and them, and it is totally logical that I defended on this occasion them and, on other occasions some other individuals with whom I have very little in common, but for whom I do know that some of their human rights were denied. I behave according to the international convention about human rights and its consistent unbiased application on every individual. So far I've had no reason to change this approach, regardless of who tried to benefit from the activities and work of the Helsinki Committee, regardless of who saw his or her interest in that and who tried to manipulate that. One should not at this point try to think about who the new opponent will be, nor who will be the one to benefit from the work of the Helsinki Committee, because our work is motivated by deep, honest principles based on lack of bias and objectivity.

Your integrity is obvious. You also demonstrated it in the case of your support to Avaz, when this publishing house came into conflict with their former mentor, the SDA, for whose account the paper had tried to discredit you for years. Would you care to comment on Avaz's participation in the pogrom against you?

It is true that I was for years blamed for all sorts of things by Avaz. There is no accusation or attack that they did not use against me, and indirectly against the Helsinki Committee and the idea of human rights. But the moment I realized that because of the policies of the then Prime Minister Bicakcic Avaz was becoming a victim of the unprincipled violations of law, I went to their offices and expressed my support, choosing to ignore everything they had written about me previously. Recently, in our report about the state of human rights for year 2001 we made one statement that Avaz and its owner Fahrudin Radoncic, respectively, did not like. We said that Avaz after a long period during which it was dominated by the SDA, is now supporting the SDP. After the publication of that report I was threatened by Fahrudin Radoncic. He said that he would demand from his journalists to write about the Helsinki Committee in the way that would definitely not be well-meaning. That is probably the origin of this gossipy article in Avaz, which talks about supposedly already exiting clashes between me and several members of the Helsinki Committee and that Senka Nozica has allegedly demanded my resignation. This is simply not true. Another goal of that article was to set Senka against me, although we cooperate splendidly and our opinions coincide regarding almost all important issues. Senka and I communicate openly and have highest respect for each other. That is another lie that was supposed to destabilize the Helsinki Committee, but it's only the indication of Fahrudin Radoncic's honor.

What is your interpretation of the fact that Slobodna Bosna in its special issue joined the campaign initiated against you by the American officials?

I really have no explanation, nor can I figure out why they did that. I can only say that their assertions about me are totally untrue and are extremely ill-intentioned. Why they did this, who set them up to it, whether they are simply trying to please the "international community" or whether something else is the matter, I can only speculate and I really do not have time or energy for that right now.

How big a problem is the corruption of leaders of non-governmental organizations or owners of private media companies that still receive significant donations from abroad? Some of the examples we mentioned indicate that they are capable and willing to quickly modify their views in order to adapt to the desires and demands of the donors. How many other media and non-governmental organizations will be ready to betray their proclaimed principles of work and action?

I have noticed such tendencies in some organizations. It is true that some of them believe that all means are allowed in order to obtain a donation or please a donor and it is true that frequently priorities, focus and methods depend on the donor... But, coincidentally, those organizations cannot portray themselves as significant factors of the civic society. There is no doubt that there are serious organizations that will not allow themselves to abandon their principles at any cost. Such organizations may unfortunately have to reduce the volume of their activities but honor or ass are not on sale.

It is not easy today to be Srdjan Dizdarevic. The pogrom-like campaign against you is led by the Americans, and the local authorities and some media have wholeheartedly joined that campaign. How are you experiencing all this, what are your plans for the future? How important are the phone calls of friends and acquaintances who congratulate and encourage you, saying about Kukic and Todorevic things that they definitely would not like to hear about themselves?

I really feel violated, humiliated, as someone who has undeservedly received a series of low blows. On the other hand, it is true that many friends and colleagues have been calling these days, offering their support and supporting me in everything I have done over the last few months. I am concerned about impotence that we face right now. I am concerned that even if one has justice on his side and honorable intentions it is still possible to be pilloried and lose the battle. Of course I do not intend to lament over my fate. I started all this prepared to face such blows and betrayals. As far as the USA is concerned, this may sound strange, but I am more concerned about her than about myself. We and European democrats had a vision of American democracy and human rights in the USA starting with Jefferson and Lincoln until today, that was perhaps somewhat idealized. It is obvious that with these actions America is losing and it is obvious that we have to figure out how to deal with such America as well. I hope that this hysteria will pass soon. This cannot go on forever and I hope and know that already in the USA people have been protesting unacceptable aspects of this campaign. As far as I am concerned, I decided in December, therefore before all of this started, that this is my last term as the president of the Helsinki Committee. Therefore, at the next assembly I will not run for either the president or a member of the Governing Board. I think that seven years of work under these circumstances is enough. Unfortunately the stress inherent in this type of work, under these circumstances, has affected my health. I will probably seek a different job, hopefully quieter and less stressful, with less shocks. But, naturally, I will always somehow be with those who take my place in the Helsinki Committee and all of those who are on the side of justice, democracy and a normal Bosnia.

After the events with the "Algerian group", I was phoned by several friends of mine, distinguished intellectuals and public personalities. They openly told me that they were afraid to publicly express their opinion even though they fully supported your views. Your explanation of this climate of fear, created almost overnight?

That is a part of the psychosis that has been created, psychosis that is dominated by fear. It is legitimate that people are afraid, but it is terrifying that at this time they are afraid to say what they think. Trying to recall a similar period from history I always go back to Stalinism and McCarthyism. Some of the methods used against me resemble those two periods. In such an atmosphere it is really hard and one may even need supernatural courage. But there must be people who will stick out, even despite themselves. Once light is shed on that path, something will stay forever. Battles are not lost irretrievably. Some minorities fought as a vanguard for certain visions. I do not say that I am one of them. But it is certain that there must be people who are prepared to state their opinion and there must be people who will criticize unacceptable. We must not allow that values be corrupted; we must not allow that their actions become proclaimed for good. While there are individuals who detect what in these actions is bad, there is hope.

Translated on January 30, 2002