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ISRAEL: Israeli citizen suspected of involvement in Bosnia war crimes arrested

January 18, 2011 |  4:07 pm

An Israeli citizen was arrested Tuesday in connection with a 1995 massacre in Bosnia,  and Israel’s Justice Ministry launched extradition proceedings against him.

A Sarajevo court issued a warrant for Alexandar Cvetkovic's arrest in April, stating that he was wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. In August, Bosnia-Herzegovina filed a formal request to Israel for his  extradition to stand trial at a war-crimes tribunal.

Srebrenica_Genocide_Satellite_Photos_Branjevo_FarmThe extradition request was supported by extensive documentation of Cvetkovic's alleged involvement in the Srebrenica massacres, including a deposition of the chief prosecutor of the war-crimes tribunal in Sarajevo, a photo of Cvetkovic's military ID, survivors' testimony  and affidavits of soldiers of the  unit he served in, and the suspect's own testimony at the  International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY.

According to the documents, Cvetkovic was a soldier in the 10th Sabotage Unit belonging to the Vojska Republike Srpske, the Bosnian Serb Army that seized control of the Srebrenica enclave in 1995. The unit of trained commandos and snipers participated in the "systematic, wide and planned campaign against the Bosnian-Muslim population with the intent of exterminating them," the Israeli Justice Ministry says in a petition to declare the man extraditable. 

The material provided by authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the ministry's reveal the "chilling facts" of the massacre of Muslim civilians at the Branjevo Farm on July 16, 1995, the petition says. 

For 10 hours that day, busloads of civilians -- many blindfolded and bound -- were driven to the farm. The people were removed from the bus, lined up around 10 at a time, and shot from behind by a firing squad of eight. Some witnesses testified that approximately 700 people had been killed that day. But Bosnian authorities, relying on United Nations experts and mass graves discovered around the farm, believe the number of victims was 1,000 to 1,200. 

Cvetkovic allegedly was a member of that firing squad and actively participated in the Branjevo massacre, one of several in which about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in the bloodiest atrocities on European soil since World War II.

Several other soldiers who took part in the events have already been caught, tried and sentenced. One of them, Drazen Erdemovic, testified that at a certain stage during the hours-long massacre, Cvetkovic said the executions were going too slowly and proposed using a heavy M-84 gun, normally tank-mounted, instead of automatic rifles. Erdemovic and the others agreed, Erdemovic told the ICTY in 2007. The heavier gun was used on two groups but didn't kill everyone, leaving many injured on the ground, begging soldiers to kill them. Erdemovic testified during the trial of Vujadin Popovic and other senior officials behind the mass murders in Srebrenica; he was sentenced to five years in jail. Srebrenica2007

Like others involved in the Srebrenica incidents, Cvetkovic himself also testified before the ICTY investigators in October 2005. He said he had joined the unit in question earlier that month but said he served as a driver. On that day, Cvetkovic told his interrogators, he drove soldiers, including Erdemovic, to 
Branjevo, and was to return to pick them up after their assignment.

In his testimony, Cvetkovic said when he returned to the farm, he saw a group of soldiers, including those he had driven earlier. A few minutes later, a bus arrived and men came out of it, their hands tied. Some were blindfolded. Soldiers led people behind the building. Gunfire was heard, and the soldiers returned alone. The same scenario repeated itself as more buses arrived. He didn't see the prisoners being shot, Cvetkovic told the ICTY, but he assumed this is what happened. He denied Erdemovic's claims when confronted with that testimony. Cvetkovic, though, was named by others as an active participant of the firing squad.

A year after testifying, Cvetkovic immigrated to Israel with his family. Married to a Jewish woman, he received Israeli citizenship. His attorney said Tuesday he was shocked by Cvetkovic's arrest and thoroughly denies the allegations. His family is stunned, according to Hebrew media reports, as are  neighbors that described him as a cheerful family man, always ready to help others. They said they hoped the arrest was a mistake.

The Israeli Justice Ministry maintains that the materials provided in the request for Cvetkovic's extradition indicate evidence that would be sufficient for trying him in Israel, had the crimes been carried out in the country --  a key condition in the extradition law. The allegations make him extraditable in keeping with both Israel's extradition law -- revised around a decade ago to allow extradition of Israeli citizens under certain conditions -- as well as the international extradition charter Israel signed decades ago.

Cvetkovic, born in the former Yugoslavia in what is today Bosnia-Herzegovina, was not an Israeli citizen or resident at the time of the alleged crimes. Therefore, he is not entitled to serve his sentence in Israel, should he be sentenced to prison in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to the petition signed by Gal Levertov, who heads the ministry's international crimes division.

The Justice Ministry is asking that Cvetkovic remain in custody for the proceedings until the court rules on the extradition request. Last week, at the end of a two-year legal process, five Israelis suspected of organized crime in the Los Angeles area were extradited to the U.S., where they will stand trial. If convicted, they will return to Israel to carry out their sentence. 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top: Aerial view of Branjevo Farm. Credit: Srebrenica Genocide blog

Bottom: Burial of 465 Bosnians identified in 2007. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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