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Harsh Light Shines on Dark Bosnian Corner

Muslim, Croatian nationalists join foes in appointing to human rights post a Serb accused of 'ethnic cleansing.' Lawmakers' 'cynicism' lamented.

September 27, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Muslim nationalists who dominate Bosnia's government must have been hoping no one would notice.

In a session this month of the parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the few governmental institutions here that includes Muslims, Croats and Serbs, the dominant nationalist parties agreed unanimously to appoint as head of a state human rights commission a Bosnian Serb reputed to have been involved in "ethnic cleansing."

Velibor Ostojic has not been publicly indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. But the senior Bosnian Serb official is remembered by survivors for having ordered the purge of thousands of Muslims from southeastern towns at the start of the Bosnian war in 1992.

His name is especially associated with the once-Muslim municipality of Foca, 30 miles southeast of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. As a member of top war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic's inner circle, Ostojic seized control of Foca in April 1992. Hundreds of Muslims were killed there, rape was institutionalized in its notorious prison camp, and more than two dozen mosques were destroyed.

So what were officials of the ruling Muslim nationalist party thinking when they joined Bosnian Serb and Croatian nationalists to vote in favor of Ostojic as a human rights chief?

The vote provoked such public outcry that Muslim legislators now are struggling to explain what they call a "mistake" and an "oversight."

In fact, the Ostojic appointment is the latest example of the kind of deal-making that goes on among the three leading nationalist parties--enemies who took Bosnia to war, in some cases profited during the war, and remain firmly entrenched in power.

"This is the consistent logic of nationalist parties whose only goal is to maintain their grip on power," said Circle 99, an association of independent intellectuals that is critical of the government. "This shows how they make deals, and mutually support one another, with a high level of cynicism and unscrupulous politics."

The Muslim legislators apparently were willing to go along with Ostojic's appointment because it was part of a bigger package that divvied up senior parliamentary posts.

Although opposition parties made small inroads during Bosnia's Sept. 13-14 municipal elections, the sway held by the nationalists makes it very difficult for alternative voices to be heard. Senior diplomats in Sarajevo are highly critical of U.S.-brokered peace accords that ended the war in 1995 but sustained existing ruling parties. Insufficient attention has been paid to opposition political organizations, they maintain, and without that, all other goals--such as bringing home refugees and ending impunity from war crimes prosecution--are moot.

Ostojic was elected to the multiethnic Bosnian parliament last year by Bosnian Serb voters casting ballots for the ticket of the Serbian Democratic Party, the ruling Bosnian Serb group. A 1994 U.N. human rights report singled out Ostojic for having run a "concentration camp" in Foca at a time when notorious Serbian paramilitary squads were given free run of the town.

He was accused in 1993 by Muslim officials of having ordered the rape of Muslim women in Foca, where such abuse was a systematic form of torture.

Before the war, Ostojic lost his job as a high school teacher for alleged sexual misconduct involving female pupils.

Sejfudin Tokic, a Muslim opposition politician who was one of only two legislators to vote against the Ostojic appointment, said the head of the parliament's human rights commission should be a member of the opposition.

Even organizations that exist as satellites to the Muslims' ruling Party of Democratic Action reacted angrily.

"This is a humiliation for tens of thousands of people killed and banished from eastern Bosnia who are victims of Ostojic and those like him," said the Assn. of Citizens of Bosansko Podrinje, which includes Muslim refugees.

The independent Tuzla Forum of Citizens said: "If the Bosnian people didn't vote for [Muslim, Croatian and Serbian nationalist parties], such humiliations would not happen to us. The national oligarchies are ready to do anything to keep themselves on top, even naming someone whose activities represent the darkest corner of the human mind."

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