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Relatives Testify to Struggles to Resolve Missing Persons Cases in Former Yugoslavia
Thursday, September 25, 2003

By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing Friday, August 1, 2003, to address the issue of missing persons in the southeastern region of Europe formerly known as Yugoslavia.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) presided over the hearing which featured testimony from four witnesses who lead non-governmental organizations representing the families of missing persons in Kosovo and Croatia.

In his opening statement, Chairman Smith noted the importance of stories from relatives of missing persons to underscore the human tragedy and legacy of the conflicts that erupted in the region. In exploring those experiences, Smith said, those in the United States can begin to empathize with such a heartbreaking issue not often noted as a consequence of conflict.

Citing the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, Smith remarked that "nothing is more appropriate for the Helsinki Commission than to have a public hearing not about policies and programs, but about real people who have suffered so much. Like the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the resolution of missing persons cases can help bring about at least some closure and help individuals recover from their tragic loss."

In prepared remarks for the hearing, Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) said, "While we are saddened by the stories our witnesses will tell of missing relatives--some for many, many years--we are also inspired by their courage and leadership as they forge ahead seeking truthful answers." Co-Chairman Campbell emphasized that stringent professional law enforcement procedures are needed throughout the region of Southeast Europe in order to help bring closure to existing cases.

Gordana Jaksic is a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Parents and Families of the Arrested, Captured and Missing in Novi Sad, Serbia. Jaksic testified that her Serbian-based organization is currently investigating cases of 560 missing persons who vanished from 1991 to 1996, immediately following the fall of Yugoslavia. One case is that of her own son, Slobodan, captured by Croatian forces in May 1992 while serving in the Yugoslav People's Army in Bosnia. "Eleven years is a very long time," Jaksic said. "I do not ask for pity. I do not need anyone's pity. I want to [awaken] people's minds and consciousness so that they raise their voices together with mine so that we can reach the truth."

In response, Chairman Smith expressed sympathy and added, "The time has come for closure, and the only way that there will be closure is if the political will exists on all sides to get to the bottom of this."

Cedomir Maric is President of the Association of Missing Persons from Krajina, a Belgrade-based organization investigating the cases of 2,824 Serbian families from within the territory of Croatia known as Krajina. Maric testified that his dedication to the cause of missing persons began in 1995, when his son, Jalimir, was kidnapped in the town of Knin.

"Our struggle has been going on for eight years, but it will continue until we find our loved ones," Maric told the Commission. "As time passes by, we become more conscious of the fact that maybe we will not reach the day, we will not live to the day when we wait for them at home and they come back alive, but we want to continue the struggle to get the remains of our children so that we know where we can bury them and go to light the candle according to our rights."

Olgica Bozanic and Verica Tomanovic represent the Belgrade-based Association of Family Members of Missing and Kidnapped Individuals. Bozanic described her five-year search for fourteen of her relatives who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998, during a period of high-intensity conflict involving the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "Serbs were kidnapped everywhere," Bozanic stressed.

Bozanic, who actually met with those responsible for her family members' disappearances, expressed frustration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting Balkan war crimes. Citing repeated contact with Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte. Bozanic explained that authorities were hesitant to assert jurisdiction in the cases of the families represented by her organization.

"I wanted to achieve something while people in my family were still alive, but Carla Del Ponte answered that they cannot arrest anybody or indict anybody because they have no evidence," Bozanic said. "I asked what they considered as evidence. I was told that if there were no bodies, there was no evidence."

Tomanovic discussed the work of her organization, formed in 2000 to bring organized power to many individual cases languishing before international and local authorities. Today, 1,303 families of those kidnapped since 1998 in Kosovo are represented. "We are a non-governmental humanitarian organization and our only goal is to find the truth about the fate of our loved ones," Tomanovic said in her testimony.

"All of these kidnappings and abductions had the same goal, which was the cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija of the Serbs," Tomanovic said. "It has been thousands of nights for some mothers who have not slept at all since their loved ones disappeared. There are children who [are] waiting for their fathers. There is so much pain and suffering, and this anxiety is more horrible than any truth."

Tomanovic's husband, Dr. Andrija Tomanovic, is one of the victims her organization represents. A popular full-time professor and vice president of the Red Cross of Serbia and Kosovo, Dr. Tomanovic was kidnapped in June 1999 at a Pristina Hospital, supposedly guarded by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Tomanovic echoed Bozanic's discontent with the responsiveness of international authorities. After reporting her husband's kidnaping to KFOR and UNMIK officials, Tomanovic said she received a warm welcome, but limited direct action with no result.

"I have to emphasize that we have a very active cooperation with the UNMIK office in Belgrade, but we are not satisfied with this cooperation because there is no result," Tomanovic said. "The UNMIK has not helped Serbs, not even once, to resolve at least one case. I believe that we can find the truth very quickly if those people who kidnapped our loved ones are arrested."

Maric added that his group has had no direct contact with the Croatia military on their cases.

Chairman Smith responded, "If we are to have faith in the military of Croatia, the least they can do is be absolutely aggressive, thorough and transparent in resolving missing persons issues as it relates to their military."

Adjourning the hearing, Chairman Smith indicated the Commission would hold additional sessions addressing the missing persons issue elsewhere in the war-torn areas of Southeast Europe.

Subsequently the Commission scheduled a hearing, Missing Persons in Southeast Europe (Part 2), for September 18, 2003. The hearing was cancelled due to a hurricane which swept the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The scheduled witnesses, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, have been asked to provide written testimony for the combined record.

All Commission hearings and briefings are open to the public. Interested media and other individuals are encouraged to attend.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest March 2022

  • With oligarchs in the crosshairs, alleged Western 'enablers' attract fresh scrutiny

    As governments scramble to seize high-profile assets owned by Russian oligarchs, a quiet effort is gaining momentum in the West to target their alleged “enablers” – the lawyers, lobbyists and money-handlers who critics say help them hide, invest and protect their vast wealth in U.S. and European institutions. “The yachts and jets and villas get the most attention, but a lot of the oligarchs’ money is in private equity and hedge funds – places we can’t see,” said Maira Martini, a researcher with the corruption watchdog Transparency International. “That’s the money that really matters to them.” For decades, wealthy business tycoons with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have enlisted the services of reputable bankers and lawyers in the West to navigate loopholes that obscure their identity. While it's not necessarily illegal to use obscure entities and agents to protect finances, critics say the laws need to be strengthened to create more transparency. rganized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global investigative reporting platform that focuses on corruption, organized crimes and illicit financing, claims to have uncovered over 150 assets worth $17.5 billion held by 11 Russian elites and their alleged enablers, while a Forbes report identified more than 82 properties across the world -- a collective of $4.3 billion -- held by 16 sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Assets that have surfaced are likely only a fraction of these oligarchs' actual wealth. The true extent is difficult to track because they often use a convoluted network of shell companies, obscure entities and stand-ins to keep their finances hidden, experts said. But now, with war raging in Ukraine, lawmakers and corruption watchdogs are calling on governments to close those loopholes and crack down on the middlemen who know how to exploit them. “Putin’s oligarchs cannot operate without their Western enablers, who give them access to our financial and political systems,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “These unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, trust and company service providers and others need to do basic due diligence on their clients to ensure that they are not accepting blood money. This isn’t rocket science – it is common sense policy to protect democracy.” In Washington, Cohen and others have introduced the ENABLERS Act, which would require real estate brokers, hedge fund managers and other entities to “ask basic due diligence questions whenever somebody comes to them with a suitcase full of cash,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the bill. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of journalists and newsrooms that have tracked the wealthy's tax havens and financial secrecy, has identified at least a dozen networks of facilitators, offshore agents and banks across the world that have allegedly helped Russia's elites move and hide their money based on its analyses of public records and leaked financial documents the group has obtained over the past decade. This includes a range of actors, from global offshore law firms that create shell companies and other obscure entities to help wealthy Russians keep their finances clouded, to one-man shops in offshore tax havens that help set up "nominee" shareholders and paid stand-ins to conceal the real owners of entities. ICIJ also points to the roles of major law firms in helping shape the modern tax avoidance system as well as the roles of big financial institutions and banks in helping wealthy Russians move their money. Last year, The Washington Post, as part of its collaboration with ICIJ's Pandora Papers project, reported on how South Dakota, with its limited oversight, vague regulations and trust secrecy, has become a tax haven for secretive foreign money. Malinowski stressed that the United States "has become one of the easiest places in the world for corrupt kleptocrats around the world to hide money." “What we've basically allowed is a system where people can steal their money in countries without the rule of law and then protect their money in countries like ours where they can count on property rights and courts and privacy rules to safeguard his loot for life," Malinowski said. "We should not be complicit in the theft that supports dictatorships like Putin." Experts warned that sanctions and asset seizures, while effective in the short term, may be toothless over time if secrecy loopholes remain in place. On Wednesday, Transparency International published an open letter calling on Western leaders to take steps to stem rules that foster opacity. “To disguise their wealth and keep them out of the reach of law enforcement authorities, kleptocrats will turn to lawyers, real estate agents, banks, crypto-service providers and banks in your countries,” the letter reads. “You must redouble your supervision efforts over the gatekeepers of the financial sector.”

  • Chairman Cardin Emphasizes the Importance of the Global Magnitsky Act

    Madam President, reserving the right to object to the request from the Senator from Idaho, it is my understanding that the Senator’s modification would not include provisions that were included in the Housepassed legislation that modifies the global Magnitsky sanction regime. I just would like to speak for a moment, if I might. There is no question that we stand with the people of Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Mr. Putin. We are inspired every day by the courage of the Ukrainian people and by their inspirational leader, President Zelenskyy. The United States has shown leadership, and I congratulate the Biden administration. We have led the free world in providing defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. We have provided humanitarian assistance, joining the global community, including dealing with 3 million Ukrainians that are now refugees in other countries and 10 million that have been displaced as a result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked attack. And we have led on sanctions. We have led in getting the global unity to impose sanctions against not just the Russian sectors, but also against individuals. And when Mr. Zelenskyy spoke before the Members of Congress, he specifically mentioned the importance of these sanctions; and he asked us to expand those covered by the sanctions to include the enablers, those that are enabling Mr. Putin—the oligarchs—to be able to fund his aggression against Ukraine. So what did the House send over to us? In their bill, they sent over a global Magnitsky modification. It is identical to legislation that was filed by Senator PORTMAN and myself that included the revocation of PNTR for Russia, along with the global Magnitsky. First and foremost, it removes the sunset that is in the legislation that would sunset this year. Mr. Zelenskyy asked for us to be resolved in being willing to stand up to Mr. Putin, that it would take some time. A clear message is that we remove the sunset on the global Magnitsky statute. And we know how difficult it is to get legislation passed in this body. It also expands the global Magnitsky to include the enablers—exactly what Mr. Zelenskyy asked us to do—those that enabled—the oligarchs that allowed him to be able to finance this. The language that is included in here is very similar to the language that was included in President Trump’s Executive order. This is critical legislation. Now, let me just tell you how appropriate it is that it is included in a PNTR bill—because the first Magnitsky sanction bill—and Senator WYDEN was very important in getting this done—was included in the original PNTR bill for Russia, and we were able to get it done at that time. We then made it a global Magnitsky, and my partner on that was the late Senator McCain. It has always been bipartisan. My partner now is Senator WICKER. The two of us have joined forces to make sure we get it done now. It is critically important in order to impose banking restrictions on those that are targeted under the global Magnitsky, as well as visa restrictions on being able to travel. How important is it? Ask Mr. Usmanov, who is one of the principal oligarchs to Mr. Putin, who solves Mr. Putin’s business problems. Guess how he solves those problems? Well, his yacht has now been confiscated in Germany. That is how important these sanctions are and how we have to move them forward. So, if I understand my colleague’s request, it would deny the opportunity for us to act on the global Magnitsky, which Mr. Zelenskyy has specifically asked us to do. We would lose that opportunity. We would be sending this bill back to the House that is not in session, which means there will be a further delay in repealing PNTR for Russia, which is something we need to do now, today. We can get it to the President for signature today under the majority leader’s request. And as the majority leader has indicated, I support the energy ban—I support the Russian energy ban. President Biden has already taken steps to do that. And I agree with my colleague from Idaho. I would like to incorporate that in statute, but there is no urgency to do that as there is on repealing PNTR and the global Magnitsky. That is the urgency. That is what we need to get done today. That is what we can get to the President this afternoon under the majority leader’s request, and that will be denied if my friend from Idaho’s request were granted. So, for all those reasons, I object.

  • International Court orders Russia to suspend invasion of Ukraine

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin joined ABC News to discuss a resolution submitted by himself and others, which was recently adopted by the Senate and called on the Putin regime to be held accountable for war crimes committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine."I hope that one day in the near future we'll see [Mr. Putin] at the Hague, tried as a war criminal," he said. On March 23, the U.S. Department of State published a statement confirming that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

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