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Dragan Opacic's Three Circles of Hell

First a war criminal, then a Hague tribunal witness, and all the while actually a victim, Dragan Opacic, on June 6, 2001, after six and a half years of prison time, beatings, lies and humiliations, again became a free man. Since October 30, 1994, when he was captured, he has been a victim of an unbelievable judicial and political farce

by Dragan RISOJEVIC

Nezavisne Novine, Banja Luka, Srpska, B-H, November 30, 2001

A cold prison cell in the barracks "Viktor Bubanj" in Sarajevo. It is winter of 1995. Artillery battles between the Army of the Republic of Srpska and the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina are a daily occurrence. The exact date is now known. A teenager in a worn out prison uniform waits for "an important person". He is shaking with cold. Only a few minutes later, as he recalls today, Alija Iztebegovic, president of the presidency of the then Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, surrounded by six bodyguards and wearing an Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina uniform, showed up.

The prisoner, whose identity will be revealed by the International Red Cross only two years later, at the other end of Europe, in the prison unit of the Hague Tribunal in Scheveningen, Dragan Opacic, protected prosecution witness "L" in the trial of Dusko Tadic, indicted and later found guilty of committing crimes in the camp of Trnopolje, near Prijedor, with difficulty recalls this encounter.

Izetbegovic: Where are Karadzic and Mladic?

Prisoner: I don't know. I guess in the Republic of Srpska.

Izetbegovic: There is no Srpska! There is only Bosnia-Hercegovina!

Prisoner: I don't know. I guess they could be there.

Izetbegovic: Did you shell Sarajevo?

Prisoner: I did not. I was with infantry, I had nothing to do with mortars.

Izetbegovic: Liar!

The prisoner entered the first circle of hell at "Viktor Bubanj". Some seven years later, in a small room of the singles hostel in Banja Luka, Dragan Opacic, today an unemployed disabled war veteran, five months ago released from the Kula prison in Serb Sarajevo, with trouble reconstructs what later transpired in the prison cell. He says that he would be glad if Izetbegovic recalled this encounter with a prisoner who was still a minor at the time.

Beating In Front Of Alija

After he denied that he participated in the shelling of Sarajevo, Opacic says, Izetbegovic's already serious expression became menacing:

"As soon as I said that I never fired mortars, his bodyguards starter hitting me. They hit me in the belly, chest... It did not last very long. Izetbegovic watched calmly all the time. He did not react."

Opacic says that the questioning went on for a while. According to him, Izetbegovic asked about positions of units, wanted to know where Arkan was, where "Kninjas" were...

They soon left. Opacic stayed in his prison cell. A few months later members of the Agency for Investigation and Documentation (AID) started brutally torturing Opacic, hiding him from the United Nations, moving him from one prison to another... Briefly, they were preparing a judicial farce that was, several years later, after the rejection of Opacic's testimony in front of the Hague tribunal, described by the German daily "Neues Deutschland" with the following sentence: "AID had reason for laughter behind the back of gentlemen from the Hague who for a whole year blindly trusted a witness manufactured in the Sarajevo factory of fake witnesses."

However, the factory of witnesses started with work as early as May 16, 1995. On that day the Higher Court in Sarajevo sentenced Dragan Opacic to ten years in prison after finding him guilty of "genocide". According to the court he was found guilty of "23 murderers by shooting, two murders by slaughter and ten rapes" of Bosniaks imprisoned during 1992 in Trnopolje camp. Not a single witness recognized Opacic. The verdict does not state the names of the victims. Nevertheless, the "criminal" was found guilty. The defendant, as his defense attorney in the Hague, lawyer Branislava Isailovic, later said, reversed his earlier statements and confessed everything after three months of brutal torture.

"He admitted that he knew Dusan Tadic. Yes, at the age of 15 he was a camp guard in Trnopolje. Yes, he raped there hundreds of women and murdered hundreds of prisoners. Of course, he did all of that together with Dusko Tadic."

Opacic explains how he made the confession: "I do not recall details, but some time in the spring of 1995 the guys from AID started showing me video recordings from Trnopolje camp. The chief investigator was an elderly man. I will never forget his name - Enes Bezdrob. A group of four-five people from the AID repeatedly came to my cell. I also remember certain Sejo, a brawny man. He definitely weighed over 100 kilograms. He lost someone on the front, so he liked to torture me. For the whole night I had to memorize the exact layout of the camp buildings, describe my fictitious friendship with Dusko Tadic, whom I hadn't seen before the Hague. All that time I had special treatment in the prison. I was chained to the wall, so that I could not lay down or stand normally. They beat me day and night. They poured salt on my wounds. As a result of repeated beatings my arms were so swollen that I could not hold anything with my hands. They gave me some sort of injections that made me disoriented, as if I were on drugs. I did not know who I was or where I was."

It did not help that at the main hearing Opacic cried and denied everything. The key evidence, his written confession obtained after three months of torture was the only valid evidence as far as the court was concerned.

The farce worked. After an invitation from the Sarajevo authorities, Hague investigators jumped to the chance to take over Opacic, who, after becoming witness "L", was moved to the Tribunal prison in Scheveningen. He spent the next 18 months there.

Martyrdom

At the same time the public did not know his true identity. The prosecution only let it be known that he was a Bosnian Serb and Dusan Tadic's "accomplice". To make things worse, the Army of the Republic of Srpska all that time treated Opacic as a deserter! By someone's mistake, or perhaps as a way to avoid responsibility for twenty members of the First Guard Brigade who went missing on October 30, 1994, all of them were listed as deserters. All that time Opacic's family was convinced that he was dead. However, they had hope. On October 25, 1996, that hope became reality. That day, Tadic's defense attorney, Dutch lawyer Wladimiroff brought Dragan Opacic's brother, Pero, and father, Janko, to a hearing of the protected witness "L". During the first encounter, the witness "L" claimed that he did not know them because, as he later explained, he was "aware that his testimony would then be dismissed," which indeed turned out to be correct. The then Chief Tribunal Prosecutor, William Reed somewhat later, in an official note from the questioning wrote: "the witness carefully looked at both men and said that he did not know either of them. However, based on his reaction, I was convinced that he knew both of them. I asked Janko Opacic whether he knew who witness 'L' was. He said that he was his son. Then I asked Pero Opacic the same question. He said that witness 'L' was his brother."

Testimony of Dragan Opacic's brother and father started an amazing turnaround. Witness "L" changed his statements, confirmed that Janko was his father and Pero Opacic brother; he admitted that he was "coached" for the trial with torture, that he saw Dusko Tadic on videotape for the first time...

Briefly, witness "L", starting with that day officially Dragan Opacic, became totally useless for the tribunal in the trial of Dusko Tadic.

However, a year later, the tribunal gave up its initial plan to try Opacic for perjury and the "hot potato" known as witness "L" was sent back where everything started - to Sarajevo.

In the meantime, the then Chief Prosecutor of the tribunal, Louise Arbour, in late 1996, as at the time Sarajevo media reported, informed Izetbegovic that "an investigation established that Opacic's assertions that he was tortured and forced to confess by torture were lies"?!

Following the only possible course of action at that point the tribunal sent Opacic back to Sarajevo, and from there again to prison. This time to the prison in Zenica. There, after this case developed into a veritable judicial scandal, Opacic spent another two years. On July 4, 2000, Opacic was transferred to the Kula prison in Serb Sarajevo. Finally, the parole board of the Republic of Srpska government, after six and a half years long martyrdom, paroled him. On June 18, 2001, Dragan Opacic was finally released.

Seeking Justice

Still burdened by the monstrous indictment for genocide (Opacic was paroled, as that was the only available legal remedy) today Dragan Opacic seeks justice, hoping to finally clear his name.

"I want that someone be held responsible for everything that has happened to me. All appeals I submitted were unsuccessful. I don't want to be branded as a war criminal. Finally, someone must pay for all my suffering! At the time I was captured I weighed more than 90 kilograms [200 pounds]. When I was released from prison, I looked as a skeleton. All those who tortured me must somehow pay for the evil they inflicted on me!" Opacic says. Today he lives in single men hostel in Banja Luka, where he found accommodation after the release from prison.

In the meantime, his family returned from their wartime refuge in Kozarac, where they lived since the autumn of 1992, to Bosanska Bojna, a village near Velika Kladusa.

At the same time, Dragan Opacic is determined to persevere because he cannot "forget those who took away six and a half years of [his] life, even though [he] was innocent".

Will he obtain justice, or will the case of witness "L" become yet another quixotic battle without chances to success, is a question that at this time lacks a definite answer. Nevertheless, Branka Isailovic, Opacic's defense attorney at the tribunal attempted to give an answer to this question.

Just Another Victim

This is an excerpt from her speech in front of the tribunal judges: "Dragan Opacic, age 25, a Serb. Originally from Western Bosnia. You can rest assured that he is alive. Apart from a bullet scar, he does not feel bad. You must be wondering why he deserves our sympathy if he managed to pull through the war and is now alive and kicking. Who could dare compare him with murdered children, raped women, tortured and murdered men in Serb, Croat, and Muslim camps, about whom we have heard so much during the war in Bosnia and now in front of the Hague tribunal. However, he is just another victim of war who needs recognition of his victimhood and then assistance and compensation, if a compensation is possible, for all the inflicted suffering".

Capture on Treskavica

Dragan Opacic was captured on October 30, 1994, in the clashes on the Treskavica Mountain. He was a conscript, only three months into his mandatory military service. "We had been surrounded for seven days. We were bombed by both sides, because we were in no man's land, cut off. We waited for assistance, but it never came. Once I realized that out of twenty soldiers who were initially surrounded, fifteen had died in those seven days, five of us decided to try to break out. Once we realized that that was impossible, some of us committed suicide. I was the only one left alive. When I saw that Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina soldiers were approaching me, I pulled a fuse from a hand grenade. I wanted to kill myself. When they realized what I had done, they shouted not to kill myself, that they were not going to kill me. They treated me well after capture. No one maltreated me in the military camp where I spent ten days after capture. The trouble started later."


Translated on July 2, 2002
Nezavisne Novine