Germans chase Serbian war criminals, amid familiar shadows of own past

February 17, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- In Germany, a country that knows a thing or two about war criminals, new villains are loose in the land.

They stand accused of brutality and genocide. About a dozen are under investigation, and some people believe that hundreds more may be ducking the authorities in cities from Berlin to Frankfurt.

The suspects are not Nazis from World War II, but Serbs from the war in the former Yugoslavia. And this time around, Germans are doing the chasing and charging, not the running and hiding.

"We have several investigations going on," Rolf Hannig, a spokesman for the German state prosecutor's office, said yesterday.

"I can't say anything about the names or the details, because that would jeopardize the investigations."

One case is already known in detail, after the arrest Monday in Bavaria of Dusko Tadic, who became the first person charged under Germany's post-World War II "world law" against providing aid to genocide. The law allows the arrest of suspects even if the crimes were committed in other countries and the suspect isn't German.

Mr. Tadic, 28, a Bosnian Serb and a former policeman and restaurant owner, has been charged with aiding genocide, murder and inflicting grievous bodily harm.

He is alleged to have beaten, stabbed and killed Bosnian Muslim prisoners at two detention camps in 1992. Eyewitnesses say he took part in castrating several prisoners.

Mr. Tadic is the first person arrested outside the former Yugoslavia for alleged war crimes in that conflict, and German officials hint that more such arrests are likely soon.

But critics of the German government, ever sensitive to their country's own history of genocide, say the investigations have been too soft and too slow, and should have produced more results by now.

"There isn't any doubt about these cases; they are well documented," said Tilman Zuelch, chairman of the Society for Endangered Peoples, a German human rights organization.

"In August, we offered the government material we had collected from refugees, and they were not interested," he said. "Now that there has been an arrest, we think that many [suspects] will start running away, or will move to another part of Germany."

Stefan Schwarz, a member of the German Parliament from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been the loudest critic, charging that police were ignoring "hide-outs of war criminals" in his state, which includes the German capital of Bonn.

Mr. Schwarz recently withdrew that charge, but he still questions why more arrests haven't resulted from a list of several hundred suspects he says he turned over to investigators last year.

The investigators say they're moving as fast as possible, compiling evidence from Bosnian refugees in Germany and from other eyewitness accounts in an Austrian government report last year to the United Nations.

Germany would seem an unlikely destination for Serbs on the run. In World War II, the Nazis aligned themselves with the Croatian ultranationalist Ustasha movement, and the alliance exterminated hundreds of thousands of Serbs. That's one reason Germany's support of Croatian independence in 1991 helped intensify mistrust between the warring Serbs and Croatians.

But economic conditions have recently become a stronger influence than history for some, Mr. Zuelch said.

"In areas of Bosnia where these people took the TVs, the VCRs, the homes and the land of the Bosnians, they calculated they would then be well off," he said.

"But since then, the Serbian economy has collapsed. They have come to Germany because of its higher standard of living."

This has led to scenes on German streets reminiscent of some that followed World War II, in which war refugees, haunted by visions of concentration camps, suddenly recognize the face of a tormentor.

"We took a recent call from a Bosnian man in Berlin who has seen two Serbs who worked in camps where he was held," Mr. Zuelch said.

Some international human rights activists would like German officials to hand over Mr. Tadic and other suspects to the international war crimes tribunal set up by the United Nations in The Hague.

"That would be a more effective way to handle these cases," said Jeri Laber, executive director of Helsinki Watch, a New York-based organization that has compiled the two-volume "War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

"The objection that has always been raised [about the tribunal] is that you're never going to get anyone extradited for a trial, so it would be a real shame to waste this opportunity," Ms. Laber said.

For now, the German prosecutor's office has no such plans, Mr. Hannig said.

"We are investigating and pursuing these cases, assuming that they will be put to a German court," he said. "Thus, we are not thinking about this possibility yet."

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