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The case of Dragan Opacic

Global Imprisonment of Witness L

by Igor GAJIC

Reporter, Banja Luka, Srpska, June 21, 2000

For six and a half years, inside the walls of the Correctional Facility in Zenica, Dragan Opacic has been asking himself each day what he has done before God to deserve such a fate.

Nevertheless, today he has at least one guarantee. He will live. Even in the case that he serves the entire sentence determined by the court in Sarajevo when he was imprisoned on the Treskavica Mt. as a private of the Republic of Srpska Army (VRS).

According to the decision of the court, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for alleged war crimes carried out in the Trnopolje collection center during 1992. At that time Opacic was 16 years old but this did not present an obstacle to the Higher Court in Sarajevo which sentenced him for 23 counts of murder by gunfire, two counts of murder by cutting of the throat and 10 rapes. The court was likewise not bothered by the fact that not a single witness saw Opacic in the Trnopolje camp, nor that he was not he at the camp during the period mentioned in the indictment. He was sentenced on the basis of a confession which he signed while in the hands of AID, the intelligence service of the Bosnia-Hercegovina (BH) Federation.

Ideal witness: "I had no means of survival. The only thing I could do was to sign the confession. Then they stopped beating me. They beat me with anything and everything. A rubber hose, split wood logs, they put salt into my wounds," Opacic is loath to remember. During his trial he did not see a single witness. The judge accused him and the judge sentenced him. Today he asks himself: "Which of those Muslims was in that war camp and saw me there? Let him step forward and say that I was at the war camp. They should feel free to step forward." This evidence was not provided by the Hague tribunal, OHR, IPTF nor the Office for Human Rights. Opacic has appealed to all of these institutions.

While he related his story to Reporter in the meeting room of the Correctional Facility in Zenica, Opacic at first appeared calm. Only after a certain time did it become apparent that this calm was nothing else but resignation or acceptance of his fate there.

Nevertheless, he has not given up on the battle to prove the truth, even though he himself believes in it less and less.

When he was imprisoned and sentenced, no one knew anything about him. Neither the Red Cross, nor UNPROFOR, nor his parents nor the VRS, which after his capture sought him as a deserter. He was carefully hidden and the reason become apparent immediately after the sentencing. At that time the Bosniak government desperately needed a Serb as a witness in the Hague in the case against Dusko Tadic. Dragan Opacic with his confession became the ideal witness. Ideal for the Hague investigators as well: they finally found a Serb willing to say that he was under Tadic's direct command.

He became Witness L.

The only man at that time who was interested in Opacic and his fate was Branislava Isailovic, an attorney from Paris, has a somewhat cynical explanation of the manner in which Opacic became Witness L.

"I think that Opacic had many advantages from the perspective of the Bosniaks. He was young, not too smart and he could be easily influenced. He was an ideal witness, created to be manipulated. He comes from a poor, uneducated family, the chance of his parents initiating a search for their son were minimal. While Opacic was a prisoner, his family did not know of his whereabouts. What is more, Opacic was less than 18 years old during the period when he allegedly committed the crimes for which the Bosniaks tried to make him responsible. They used the fact that Opacic was a minor to hold his trial behind closed doors; by doing so, they created even greater pressure on him to testify against Tadic," said Isailovic, who initiated several motions for the revision of the case against her defendant. For now all her requests are at a standstill.

Preparations: Opacic, who testified against Dusko Tadic, had never seen him in his life. He was prepared to testify by AID. While he talks about this he shakes his head: "I was prepared for a long time. I lived through all sorts of things. They worked on breaking me both physically and psychologically. I viewed all the tapes, all the photos but I was afraid to step out and say that all of it was a lie prearranged by the Federation and the tribunal investigators. They knew it, too, but they wanted to believe the government here."

His story at times is accompanied by bitter twitching of a relatively indifferent expression on his face.

Nevertheless, lying saved his life. Only in the Hague did the Red Cross find out about him. He became famous as Witness L.

"I told them things but they are trying to justify themselves even today and so they did not want to try me for false testimony because they knew that they themselves were involved in it. I have always told them: I am not guilty; I was not there; I didn't do anything."

The solution was simple. They prepared him even "better". They took him in secret to the scene of the alleged crimes. Cheap movie plots became Opacic's reality: "It was no use telling them that I had never been there and that I didn't know anything about the places they were showing us." After that, he decided to nod his head at everything that they showed him. "I procrastinated as much as I could in order to delay as much as possible so that I would have some kind of guarantee for staying alive. I had no idea whether my family was alive or not."

Washing hands: The deception with the witness, whom the prosecution had already termed a key witness, was first noticed by professor Mischa Vladimirof, then one of Tadic's defenders.

During the trial, on October 26, 1996, Opacic admitted to Tadic's defender that he was not the author of his confession. The hearing was held in the presence of the chief investigator of the tribunal, Reed, the day after the identity of "Witness L" was revealed.

"I know Trnopolje from 1993 when I was a refugee there. There were no Muslims there at all. There were just a lot of refugees there and I used to tell them that they wouldn't accomplish anything and that in the end the lie would be revealed. But they only believed what they were told by the government in Sarajevo." Opacic remembers when he first saw Dusko Tadic's photograph: "When they brought the picture of Tadic, I had no idea that this was Tadic. I saw him for the first time in person at the Hague, and before the Hague I saw him on videos which were shown to me by the Bosniak police."

This was the sign for the beginning of the washing of hands of the biggest deception in the history of the Hague tribunal.

Judge Gabriella Kirk McDonald was the first. She immediately returned Opacic into the uncertainty of Bosniak hands with the words: "We believe that Bosnia will act in the appropriate manner."

A legal expert from the Netherlands who is following the work of the tribunal, Heikelina Verrijn Stuart laughed at this. "The president of the tribunal based her decision on sympathies toward Bosnia at a time when the world still believed in the picture of 'the good guys and the bad guys'. Which is probably understandable and motivated by humanism but from a legal aspect completely unjustified."

Opacic's request for asylum in the Netherlands was not even considered and on June 12, 1997 Opacic left the Schiphol airport despite the opposition of several legal experts and Dutch attorneys.

"The Netherlands could not have acted otherwise," was the position of the Dutch court and the state of Holland but in the opinion of Jeuran Sluiter, a researcher at the University of Utrecht, the European convention on human rights should have been taken into consideration.

Since then, Opacic has been in Bosnia. The only person who has remained by his side is Branislava Isailovic, who searched for him in vain for almost a year because Dragan Opacic was hidden once again. She found him at his present location, in the Zenica prison, and since then has resumed her battle on his behalf.

Turning heads: She appealed to Izetbegovic and Silajdzic but the most powerful men in the Federation continued the trend of turning away their heads. They did not want compromise the independence of their judiciary.

Dragan Opacic turned to the institutions of RS: "I wrote a letter to Dodik, a letter to the RS government. Nothing yet," he says with resignation.

In the office of the RS government they know nothing about such a letter; they also do not know from what point any sort of action could be initiated. The ministry of "smoothing over troubled waters" or the ministry of justice, as it is called in RS, has kept the promise of its minister to undertake something with regard to Opacic to the same extent that they have abolished criminal activity in RS.

The assistant to the minister of justice, Strahinja Djurkovic, remembered the case but could not tell us anything concrete about it.

"We have been in contact and spoken with the ministry in the BH Federation and this case has received some mention. We know that he has been sentenced to 10 years but we do not know the circumstances under which he was arrested," the assistant to the minister demonstrated his enviable interest in the case. But he has problems in coordinating his schedule. "At that time we did not have the time to visit him. When we find time..."

Djurkovic also mentioned something about a parole committee; even Opacic does not believe in this. He is aware that as a prisoner from another entity and someone accused of war crimes he has no chance for a weekend visit, let alone a parole. The motion to retry his case was decidedly rejected by the ministry of justice because "this must be done according to a universal plan and consistently throughout BH". The ministry of defense has never even heard of him, even though he was captured and sentenced as a member of the VRS.

After all this, Opacic's belief that one day when after his release from prison he will have no place in either the Republic of Srpska or Bosnia-Hercegovina is not surprising.

No one wants Witness L anymore.

The most accurate and tragic comment came from Opacic's mother, Zorka: "We are poor so I guess that is how it has to be."

Village petition

The family of Dragan Opacic lives in the village of Hrnici near Kozarac, 230 kilometers from Zenica, where Dragan is imprisoned. The Opacic family lives in the last house, or more accurately, a hut, in the village. Their property consists of one cow. The hut itself is dark and damp. "We have not seen him for years," his mother, Zorka, grieves. She last saw her son when she saw him off to the Army.

His father Janko and brother Pero saw him in the Hague where Dragan was afraid to admit he knew them. This was the first crack in the testimony of Witness L.

His mother, who cries every time Dragan's name is mentioned, swears that he was never in the Trnopolje camp. The local residents of the village even managed to gather a few hundred signatures on a statement asserting Opacic's innocence and his nonparticipation in anything that may have occurred in Trnopolje.

They have not visited him in prison yet because they do not have the money to do so.

Rights before and after Dayton

In addition to the attorney Isailovic, the only other active interest in Opacic's case has been expressed by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of RS. The president of this organization, Branko Todorovic, believes that this was a clear instance of a staged trial which was useful to AID for propaganda regarding "the bad guys".

Todorovic also attempted to approach the Office for Human Rights but he received the same response as Isailovic: that the office has no jurisdiction in matters preceding the Dayton agreement.

When asked why nothing could be done for Opacic and what is the purpose of the existence of the Office for Human Rights, Reporter received a written response which allotted this human tragedy two cold paragraphs. "The office has considered the report of Mr. Opacic and adopted its decision regarding this matter on January 12, 2000. The office has unanimously decided that the report was unacceptable on the basis of the fact that one part of his report was inconsistent ratione temporis with article VIII(2)(c), while one part was completely unfounded with respect to article VIII(2)(c) annex 6 of the Dayton peace agreement," it is stated in the response of Theresa Nelson, the executive officer of the office.

Even more interesting was the reaction of the BH Federation judiciary. Mustafa Bisic, the prosecutor of the cantonal court in Sarajevo, swooped down on the Helsinki Committee, accusing them of requesting a retrial for political reasons, and saying that Opacic had a fair and honest trial. How fair and honest it really was, Opacic himself felt on his own skin. Literally.

Moment of truth

Reporter has received a transcript of the moment when professor Vladimirof discovered that Witness L was "planted" by the former and current Bosniak authorities.

Vladimirof: Have you ever read any kind of statement yourself or has someone read any kind of statement to you?

Opacic: No.

Vladimirof: Did you read your own statement?

Opacic: I just got the statement to sign.

Vladimirof: So you signed the statement without reading it first?

Opacic: Yes.

Vladimirof: Why?

Opacic: They beat me. I was hurt and they threatened me. They constantly beat me and told me the most horrible things.

Vladimirof: Did you tell the judge that you were forced to sign the statement?

Opacic: No one asked me anything, not even my own attorney.

Vladimirof: You were in court, with a judge, police and someone who recorded everything. Surely you could have told the judge that you were forced to sign the statement?

Opacic: How could I? They said that they would kill me.

Vladimirof: I understand. Why didn't you tell Bob Reed what had happened?

Opacic: They told me that I needed to testify in the Tadic case. After that I would go back and then my prison sentence would be reduced or I would be freed. That is why they told me in the [Bosniak] Internal Security Service and in the court.

An older article about Opacic case from the Sarajevo weekly DaniI Confessed Murders at AID's Request, October 8 1999
Translated by Snezana Lazovic (June 23, 2000)