Ejup Ganic: war criminal or just a political pawn?

Ex-Bosnian president denies involvement in crimes that have seen him jailed in Britain

When Ejup Ganic arrived at Heathrow airport on 1 March accompanied by the ambassador of his native Bosnia, he was expecting a routine departure. It was only when two Scotland Yard detectives stepped in front of him proferring a piece of paper with the words "arrest warrant" and "conspiracy to murder" that the raven-haired engineering professor realised that extraordinary events nearly 18 years ago had returned to haunt him.

Within a few hours, Dr Ganic, a friend of Baroness Thatcher and a former president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who had been due to return to his home in Sarajevo after attending an academic ceremony, found himself instead staring at the bare walls of a cell in HMP Wandsworth, deprived of the medication he takes for high blood pressure.

The presence of the erudite father-of-two in a grim London jail for 10 days before his release on stringent bail conditions – and the ensuing triangular diplomatic and political row between Britain, Bosnia and Serbia – is proof of the extent to which the vicious war fought nearly two decades ago in the former Yugoslavia remains a source of bitter division and anger between its former foes.

But the arrest of Dr Ganic, 64, for alleged war crimes on an extradition warrant issued by the Serbian authorities is also evidence of the international game of cat-and-mouse being fought in the Balkans over how history will judge the three-year Bosnian War, which began in May 1992 and saw 10,000 people killed by Serb forces in the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is a Machiavellian contest in which the family of Dr Ganic, who for 48 hours at the start of the conflict found himself the president of his nation during a hostage crisis that goes to the heart of the allegations against him, insist a "naive" British government is being used as a "pawn" by the Belgrade government to divert attention from the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs during the conflict.

Emir Ganic, the son of Dr Ganic, told The Independent that the arrest of his father was so deeply flawed that even the arrest warrant issued by a district judge against the academic contained serious factual errors which made his detention illegal. The warrant, obtained by The Independent, states that Dr Ganic is wanted for offences committed in Serbia when the claims against him relate to an attack on a Yugoslav federal army column in a street in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

Mr Ganic, who is a professor of computing at Sarajevo University, said: "For almost a decade my father has flown in and out of London on a regular basis without a problem. Then suddenly he is the subject of an ill-founded arrest warrant from Belgrade issued for the most blatantly political reasons.

"The warrant does not even state correctly the country in which the alleged offence took place. Because of a loophole in UK law, my father is deprived of his liberty. I think the British authorities have been naive in the way they responded to this warrant. They are being used as pawns in a dirty political game being played by Belgrade."

The allegations being levelled against Dr Ganic – conspiracy to murder and breach of the Geneva Convention by ordering the killing of wounded soldiers – relate to the opening days of the Bosnian War.

The then Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, had been taken hostage by Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces at Sarajevo airport but managed to contact the city's remaining TV station. In a live broadcast, Mr Izetbegovic announced he was transferring his powers to Dr Ganic, then a senior minister, enabling the academic to negotiate a United Nations deal with the Yugoslav army to swap the president in return for the release of a Serb general surrounded by Bosnian forces in central Sarajevo.

The deal fell apart when a last-minute decision to allow the Serb general's forces to accompany him was not communicated to the Bosnian forces as the UN-protected convoy entered Dobrovoljacka Street on 3 May 1992. Belgrade claims the ensuing gunfight, which resulted in the deaths of a large number of Serbian soldiers, was orchestrated by Dr Ganic, a charge he denies. The incident was examined in a UN tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, which concluded there was no evidence to support charges against any Bosnian officials.

After 10 days of detention, during which Dr Ganic had to wait three days to receive a consular visit, the engineer was granted £300,000 bail by a judge under stringent conditions which see him restricted for large portions of the day to a modest house in Battersea, south London.

The arrest, using a warrant issued by Westminster Magistrates' Court, has mobilised considerable and diverse support in Dr Ganic's favour. His six-figure surety was paid by Diana Jenkins, a Bosnian-born socialite and millionaire entrepreneur. Terence Kealey, the vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, which confers degrees on the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology set up Dr Ganic in 2001, also offered £25,000 of his own money.

According to his supporters, the political motivation of the proceedings, which have been issued against 17 other leading Bosnians by a Belgrade court, is made clear by the timing of Dr Ganic's arrest. The warrant was executed on Bosnia's independence day, marking the end of the war, and coincided with the opening day of his defence by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who told his trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague that the bloody campaign had been "holy and just".

Lord Ashdown, the former UN High Representative to Bosnia, warned that Britain's reputation was in danger of being tarnished by the saga.

He told The Independent: "Someone once advised me that in the Balkans, the key is not to look at just what is happening but the connections between the things that are happening. It is no coincidence that this arrest warrant was issued when it was – it was about politics and not about seeking justice. It is a classic piece of Belgrade manoeuvring."

However, the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, has said his government would not oppose Dr Ganic being extradited to face trial in Bosnia rather than Serbia.

Emir Ganic told The Independent: "We are hoping to pursue this through diplomatic channels. But in the meantime, my father is living in the home of friends, facing a very large legal bill to defend himself against crimes he did not commit. It would be fair to say he finds the situation very, very frustrating."

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