Bosnia's wartime 'mistresses of life and death'

Azra Basic is among around a dozen women charged or convicted of crimes committed during Bosnia's inter-ethnic war in the 1990s which claimed nearly 100,000 lives.

Published: 23rd July 2017 10:28 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd July 2017 10:28 AM   |  A+A-

This handout picture taken on December 28, 2011 and released by Bosnia and Herzegovina Prosecutor Office, shows Rasema Handanovic (45), while being detained after her arrival at Sarajevo International airport. (File | AFP)


SARAJEVO: She may once have been known as "the mistress of life and death", but in the court trying her for war crimes Azra Basic hardly stands out.

Basic is among around a dozen women charged or convicted of crimes committed during Bosnia's inter-ethnic war in the 1990s which claimed nearly 100,000 lives.

Compared to the several hundred men convicted by local and international courts for crimes committed during the 1992-1995 war, the number of women is not many.

But several ex-prisoners have already testified in court to Basic's brutal torture of detainees since the trial opened in February.

One witness at Basic's trial recalled in testimony Friday the glimmer of hope he felt on April 26, 1992. 

Dusan Nedic said he saw a woman called Azra enter a detention facility in the northern town of Derventa, where he was being held by ethnic Croats.

She spoke with other detainees, he recalled.

"For me it was a glimmer of hope," said Nedic. "I told myself that a 'woman should not be aggressive as men.'"

But he was wrong.

"She started to beat the detainees, she was jumping on them while they were on the floor," the 55-year-old shoe factory worker said.

Looking at her in court, it is difficult to link Basic with the brutal violence, including one murder, of which she is accused.

A short, silent, bespectacled woman, she avoids eye contact when in court.

When in 2011 the authorities finally caught up with her after the war, she was working in a food factory in the United States.

Basic has pleaded not guilty to war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war at the start of her trial, including a charge that she killed a prisoner.

"This person was not me," she told the court on Friday, her voice trembling.

"I swear before God and that’s all," she added, as Slavisa Djuras, the son of Blagoje Djuras, the man she allegedly killed, looked on.

- 'Better' than men -

Biljana Plavsic, now aged 86, remains the most famous woman war criminal from the former Yugoslavia. The former Bosnian Serb vice-president Biljana Plavsic is also the only one tried before the UN war crimes court in The Hague.

She was sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2003 after pleading guilty to crimes against humanity for her leading role in a campaign of persecution against Croats and Muslims during Bosnia's war.

"Women are just as capable of committing crimes," prominent Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, told AFP.

That much is clear from her essay on war criminals in the former Yugoslavia titled "They Would Never hurt a Fly".

"A woman in such a position has to be 'better' than men," Drakulic wrote in an essay on Plavsic.

"In the given circumstances it meant taking more radical views." 

Drakulic recalled the scientific-racist rhetoric used by Plavsic during Bosnia's war, the kind of ideas the Nazis would not have rejected.

Plavsic, a former biology professor, labelled Bosnian Muslims a "genetic mistake on the Serbian body".

Bosnia's war crimes prosecutors say more cases against women suspects are in the pipeline. According to local media, some 40 women are being investigated for war crimes.

Visnja Acimovic, a 45-year-old Bosnian Serb who now lives in neighbouring Serbia, is one of them.

She is accused of having taken part in the 1992 executions of 37 Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Vlasenica, most of them between 15 and 20 years old.

She denied the charges before a Belgrade court in January, and Serbia will not extradite its citizens for trial in Bosnia. They do not trust Bosnian justice, her lawyer Krsto Bobot said.

But not everyone enjoys such protection.

- 'Notably cruel' -

In March, Switzerland extradited Elfeta Veseli, a former member of Bosnian Muslim forces, back to Bosnia.

She is accused of the 1992 murder of a 12-year-old Serb in eastern Bosnia. As his family had fled, the boy returned for a forgotten dog and paid for it with his life.

Veseli's trial has yet to start.

But as well as Basic, the United States has also extradited Rasema Handanovic, 44. She had lied about her past as a former member of a special Bosnian Muslim unit.

In 2012 she pleaded guilty to the execution of three civilians and three ethnic Croat prisoners of war in the central Bosnian town of Trusina.

"The order was to do the work at Trusina, so that no one remained alive," she told the court. She was jailed for five and a half years.

"Each of these women had her own personal reason that could explain her sadistic outburst that targeted men in particular," said Bosnian psychologist Ismet Dizdarevic.

While there were fewer women war criminals they were notably cruel "to prove their power among men," he told AFP.

Most of war crimes committed by women took place in a detention context.

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