Bosnian national Jovan Divjak, wartime Bosnian army commander and longtime NGO activist, was arrested on Thursday at the Vienna Airport in the middle of a flight from Sarajevo to Bologna. Divjak was arrested on an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes and has not been informed of the charges against him. However, it is likely that he has been detained on a Serbian extradition warrant, though Serbia’s war crimes prosecution has said it has not been “officially informed” of the arrest and has refused further comment.
Jovan Divjak, a former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) officer, played a central role in the events of 3 May 1992, in the incidents occurred when the JNA was withdrawing from Sarajevo. Although of Serbian ethnic origin, he joined the ranks of the Bosnian Territorial Defense forces at the beginning of the 1992-1995 war.
Divjak was the only Serb to be made general in the predominantly Bosniak forces fighting Serbs at the start of the war. He remains the most popular Bosnian Army officer still alive, and thousands of Sarajevo citizens are expected to protest his arrest in from of the Austrian embassy here.
Divjak was a key figure in Sarajevo’s defense against the besieging Serbian forces and rose to the rank of general in what later became the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since his retirement in 1994, he has headed the NGO “Education builds Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The association helps children whose family were victims of the war, by providing them with financial and material support. In the last three months along, Divjak has traveled to Germany, Sweden and Italy on behalf of his NGO, raising the question of why he was not detained earlier.
Divjak is one of 19 people – mostly Bosnian high military, police and political official – for whom arrest warrants were issued last November upon Serbia’s request and sent to Interpol.
They are all wanted by Serbia over what has been called “The Dobrovoljacka Street shooting”, in which 40 Serbian soldiers were allegedly killed and then the JNA took Alija Izetbegovic, then the president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, hostage at the Sarajevo airport, which was then controlled by the JNA.
In an operation broadcast live on Bosnian television, general Divjak was on the scene securing the safe passage of the JNA troops that remained in Sarajevo in exchange for Izetbegovic’s release. Divjak was seen in the footage ordering Bosnian troops not to shoot at the convoy.
However, during the withdrawal of JNA soldiers and their weapons convoy, one of the army transporters came under attack from Bosnian forces attempting to free the Bosnian delegation, including President Izetbegovic, his daughter who was serving as an interpreter and the vice prime minister Zlatko Lagumdzija.
Belgrade prosecutors claim that 40 soldiers died in the incident, while Bosnian officials say that eight JNA soldiers were killed and 215 were captured.
In previous statements Divjak said he was convinced that the shootout was an accident and that nobody from the Bosnian Presidency and military could have ordered it. He notes that the small Bosnian assault units, composed of just a few people, were separated from each other and lacked any means to communicate with one another and headquarters.
However, what happened on Dobrovoljacka Street should be considered in conjunction with incidents that took place on the previous day, 2 May, when the JNA sought to regain control over Sarajevo. This is when most of the soldiers were in actual fact killed.
At the end of April 1992 the Bosnian forces blocked six JNA barracks in the center of Sarajevo and the JNA agreed to restrict the movement of the army and to withdraw from the city.
However, early on the morning of 2 May, the JNA launched a failed attempt to occupy central Sarajevo. It shelled the city center, including the building of the Presidency and the old town. Bosnian forces responded with equal force, resulting in the death of 38 soldiers and the destruction of JNA vehicles. The JNA then arrested and abducted President Alija Izetbegovic at Sarajevo Airport upon his return from failed peace talks in Lisbon.
The arrest of Divjak mirrors that last March last year of Ejup Ganic, a former member of Bosnia’s presidency and university professor who was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport in connection with the same wartime incidents.
Ganic was arrested by the London Metropolitan Police, who were acting on a provisional extradition warrant issued by Serbia. In late July last year, Ganic’s extradition from the UK to Serbia was blocked when a London judge ruled that there was evidence his trial could be “politically motivated”.
Two previous investigations found Ganic had no case to answer. One, carried out by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), concluded there was no case to try. A second, commissioned by the prosecutor’s office for the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ruled that the case against Ganic was politically motivated.
It seemed that after the legal defeat in the Ganic case, Serbia would give up on the extradition warrants for the rest of the group and leave the issue for the Bosnian legal system to sort out. Only last week, the Bosnian prosecution told local media that were in a process of questioning witnesses in the case and that the investigation, opened in 2006, should be completed during by the end of this year.
The Serbian public and authorities have long been bitter about the Dobrovoljacka street case. Serbian authorities view the incident as a serious war crime that has gone unpunished and proof that the world has focused on victims from the other side in the wars – Bosniaks, Croats and later Kosovo Albanians – while ignoring the Serbs that were killed.
Serbia’s desire to prosecute Ganic, Divjak or any others from their list is perceived as key to redressing the “aggressor-victim” balance. However, so far no court has found a basis from which to prosecute these cases specifically as war crimes. The final outcome of the arrests has been to harm diplomatic ties among the two countries and further entrench public animosity and distrust.
If the courts failed to find a case against Ganic, who at the time of Izetbegovic’s arrest had taken over the presidency and negotiated his release, the case against Divjak will be even harder to make.
The only trouble Divjak could face – though not specifically linked to the Dobrovoljacka Street case or to the extradition warrant – is that he was sentenced two decades ago in absentia by Serbian court. In 1992, he was court-marshaled by the JNA for issuing 120 pieces of light armor and 20,000 bullets to the town of Kiseljak Territorial Defense, and sentenced to 9 months imprisonment.
–by Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISA Intel. All rights reserved.