Am I the only one outraged that Ratko Mladic and his family will still be collecting his pension from the Serbian government? And has received back payments totaling around $67,000? Yes, every man is entitled to a trial, but the evidence that Mladic both orchestrated and carried out the Srebrenica massacre – the largest atrocity in Europe since World War II – is more than convincing. Should such a man be permitted to collect his 800 euro (or $1,100) every month, or his family (which obviously helped hide him over the past 16 years) while he’s in prison? Shouldn’t the point be to deprive such a man of any comfort rather than allow him the means to buy “fresh strawberries” (more on that below)?

The money is obviously important to the guy. Upon his arrest 26 May, Mladic formally applied for his pension funds to be released. According to The New York Times, “his most bitter complaint when captured was a demand for his frozen military pension…” The funds had been frozen in 2005, part of a strategy to cut off any income that could be used to finance his time on the run.

“He asked for his pension three times: ‘I need my pension. I need my pension,’ ” said Bruno Vekaric, the deputy war crimes prosecutor, recalling the exchanges during a closed extradition hearing to transfer Mr. Mladic to The Hague, as quoted by The New York Times.

The freezing of Mladic’s pension had always been billed as a temporary measure, and Serbian authorities unfroze his pension after he was turned over to the Hague wartime tribunal last week.

Mladic’s son, Darko, has already retrieved the sum of some 4.7 million dinars ($67,064) some time last week, Mladic’s family lawyer Milos Saljic told AFP. While Mladic faces trial at The Hague his family will collect his pension every month.

According to RFE/RL:

A career officer in the Yugoslav army, Mladic was one of thousands of ethnic Serbian officers who stayed in Bosnia-Herzegovina after it declared independence in 1992 and joined the separatist Bosnian Serb army. Belgrade continued to pay their salaries and health and social insurance contributions through the so-called 30 Personnel Center of the Yugoslav army.

After the Bosnian war, Mladic is believed to have moved to Serbia to avoid arrest by NATO troops in Bosnia. Details about that time are murky, but The Hague war crimes tribunal claims he stayed on the center’s payroll until retiring in June 2001, allegedly shielded from arrest by supporters in the Serbian government, the Intelligence Ministry, and the military.

This all reminds me of the injustice committed in the early years of the tribunal, which we reported on a decade ago at TOL (see the 2001 article “Crimes Does Pay”). At the time, lawyers defending alleged war criminals were paid exorbitant rates out of the tribunal budget. A few of those on trial, thinking like true entrepreneurs, then made deals with their lawyers to pass along part of these fees to their families back in the former Yugoslavia. The lawyers apparently didn’t care, as their fees were still big, and the tribunal money allowed some of those families to build nice houses that they couldn’t normally afford. Nice, little business, no?

That article was partly based on the research of journalist Zika Rakonjac, who said in an interview that hardly any lawyer could expect to get appointed unless he or she agreed to share the fee with the client.

According to Rakonjac’s research, some 1,000 people, including family members of the indictees, have benefited from the money that was extorted from the defense lawyers. “I know of families who used the money obtained from the lawyers to open up supermarket chains, luxury shops, and pharmacies, and three coffee shops are currently being built,” he said. “Many spouses, brothers, sisters, and close relatives of defendants at the tribunal confirmed to me that the lawyers cover the costs of their stays in The Hague. One of the lawyers told me that his client did not ask for a penny, but he had helped his [client's] family through various donations amounting to 80,000 Deutsche marks,” Rakonjac says.

As we reported back then:

The practice–also alleged to have taken root at the UN war crimes tribunal for Rwanda–poses serious moral dilemmas. It goes without saying that the victims’ families have been outraged by the rumors that the perpetrators might have benefited financially during a process meant to ensure that justice is finally done–and that UN money is indirectly funding the persistence of such a wrong. 

I’m sure some people will claim an “innocent until proven guilty” argument with Mladic and his pension, but why not just keep the funds frozen until the verdict? And if the verdict is guilty, do war criminals in Serbia remain entitled to their pensions?

In the meantime, Mladic seems pretty pleased with himself. According to The Croatian Times, the general, whose first request behind bars was to have fresh strawberries, reacted to news of his unfrozen pension by telling the Serbian media, “That should keep me in strawberries for a while.”

Mladic photo by Mikhail Evstafiev care of Wikimedia Commons.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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