Austria: Deporting Heroes

Jovan Mirilo provided key evidence of war crimes to the Hague Tribunal, and received the Bruno Kreisky Human Rights Prize: This month, the Interior Ministry will reconsider his future.

Jovan Mirilo received the Bruno Kreisky Human Rights Award for revealing details about the war crimes in Srebrenica | Photo:David Reali

It was on Good Friday 2007 during a family get-together that Heinz Patzelt, Secretary General of Amnesty International Austria, was introduced to Jovan Mirilo’s case for the first time.

“I received an urgent e-mail saying that a person who was involved in presenting a video to the Hague Tribunal was being kept in one of Austria’s detention centres,” Patzelt started, “the person who unveiled the crimes in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War in 1995.” We were sitting in the offices of AI in Vienna’s 15th District, on a sunny morning in late June.

The Srebrenica massacre killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslim – men and boys, and drove out some 30,000 refugees from in and around the Bosnian town. The event, which was the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II, was the work of Ratko Mladić’s Bosnian Serb Army and the paramilitary group known as the Scorpions.

In 2005, the video that contained crimes committed by certain members of the Scorpions was provided to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, by a person who is now under the protection of the International Court of Justice.

“A friend of mine was in possession of a tape,” Mirilo told The Vienna Review. “For three years, I was constantly trying to persuade him to deliver it to the authorities in Hague. After the evidence was where it was supposed to be, the man and his family were deported for safety reasons.”

With the video in hand, Serbian authorities were able to identify the Scorpions and arrest them. But, since the tribunal did not have enough evidence to keep them imprisoned,  they were soon released for lack of sufficient evidence. That was when Mirilo began to receive death threats. He remained in Serbia and continued “fighting for justice” and against organized crime.

All the while, he was going back and forth between Austria and Serbia whenever the threat became serious. In 2007, with all possible options closed down, he and his family fled. Once in Austria, they knew their only hope was to rip up their passports (they assumed the visas provided by a tourist agency in Belgrade were probably false) and hope for the best. Others paid the price.

“A brother of the man who delivered the video to the Hague Tribunal was assassinated shortly after the delivery,” Mirilo went on, “and the dead body remained on the streets for four hours after the police left.

Mid-August, Stanko Milutinovic who was accused of the murder, was convicted to ten years in prison, a minor punishment considering the brutality of the crime. Mirilo claims that the ministry of justice refused to subpoena Pero Jesic, Milenko Cobanovic and Milivoje Milutinovic. They were alleged to be accomplices by the prosecution.

Mirilo states, “The defense attributed the motive to a feudal  dispute rather than an organized pre-meditated crime. I knew that was a lesson to learn – what happens to the traitors. And I am considered one of them.”

But that Friday evening, it took little research before Patzelt already had some insight into Mirilo’s case.

“The relatives and former members of the Scorpions were still walking freely on the streets of Sid, Mirilo’s hometown,” Patzelt continued. Consequently, the lives of the Scorpions’ enemies – including Mirilo and his family – were under serious threat.

“Even though little could be solved immediately, I did not hesitate to contact some influential people. By ten o’clock, Mirilo was in one of the detention centers in Upper Austria.”

To the Secretary General, who went to visit the victim during the following two weeks, people in the center were unexpectedly polite: “ ‘Mr. Mirilo, someone wants to see you,’ they would say. And the guard would turn to me saying: ‘Smoking is not allowed, but as Mr. Mirilo can smoke, you are allowed do so as well.’ It was such a friendly and open atmosphere.”

Two weeks after the interview, Jovan Mirilo’s family was provided with an apartment and a lawyer at the expense of Amnesty International, so he could start the asylum process.

Later that year, Mirilo was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Award for Human Rights for his presenting the video to the Hague Tribunal, thus establishing beyond doubt both that the massacre had occurred, and how it had been executed, making Mirilo a hero. Patzelt and many who supported him saw his asylum application as an increasingly solid case and anticipated a positive outcome. Mirilo tried to be optimistic, but knew he had little support from the Serbian authorities inside Austria. This left him uneasy.

“Various political figures attended the award ceremony the year I received my Kreisky acknowledgment, since Kofi Annan was also one of the winners,” Mirilo explained. “The Serbian consul was sitting nearby with his secretary who was chewing gum in an impolite, almost rude, way. None of them said a word to me, and I was absolutely sure they had both noticed me.”

Today, after two threats of deportation, three applications for a refugee status, and two rejections from the Austrian Asylum Office, Mirilo may again be sent home. In September, the Interior Ministry will decide whether to re-review Mirilo’s case. If the decision remains negative, Mirilo’s family will be deported to Serbia, at the mercy of the Scorpions’ retribution.

“I know that the Scorpions have put a price on my head,” said Mirilo. “But I really can’t understand why the Asylum Office is so eager to throw me out, without acknowledging all the obvious evidence I have presented, making it clear that it is not safe for my family to be deported.”

After Mirilo’s first application in April 2007, things went the opposite way from what Patzelt and other supporters expected. There were more and more delays, and, regardless of the Kreisky Award, the first decision from the Asylum Office was negative, with no coherent defense. Mirilo’s lawyer appealed.

“The regular procedure would have been to send the case to the Independent Asylum Court,” Patzelt continued, “but since they doubted the final decision, the asylum authorities decided to have a second look, to avoid being held responsible for any mistakes.”

This was followed by a second negative decision in early February, based on a 100-page report written by an independent investigator hired by the Interior Ministry. According to Patzelt, the so-called “expert” was from outside of Austria. “The report was so vague and the wording extremely manipulative.”  The Interior Ministry claimed the expert was well established in the knowledge of the applicants’ background and culture.

“This person contacted my Serbian friends and colleagues through e-mails, asking them various questions about my previous life,” Mirilo said. “That is how I learned about his e-mail address, and was able to find out some specific details of his origin and current occupation.” The anonymous expert, Mirilo learned, was a Kosovar Albanian with a poor command of the Serbian language, and who served as an instructor to Albanian paramilitary forces – who bitterly fought Serb forces – during the Kosovo War in 1999. The report, rather than being an objective profile and analysis of Mirilo’s reasons for seeking asylum, was a compilation of misrepresentations.

In one example, Mirilo had told the Asylum Office he had once made a news feature at the radio station B52. The expert went to the radio station to confirm.

“They replied that B52 usually made all features themselves, but that they did do a feature with my collaboration,” explained Mirilo. “The ‘expert’ however managed to cut out the second half of the sentence.” This gave the false impression that Mirilo had lied. Many similar examples were to be found in the report.

Following the second denial, the Viennese alternative weekly Falter published a story credited with pressuring the Interior Ministry to withdraw the order, at least temporarily. But little has been achieved since then. The September decision will decide whether the family will be deported or protected.

Immigration in Austria is increasingly dominating the discussion; but the issues are nothing new, Patzelt emphasized, and not unique to any political party.

“The immigration laws are getting worse each year,” Patzelt said. “During the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the Austrians welcomed immigrants with open arms. In the ‘80s the procedures became a bit stricter, while during 1990s with the outbreak of Ex-Yugoslavian conflicts the situation tightened significantly.”

A complete change came with the first migrants from Africa.

With current applications, “the more prominent the case, the more hostile the reaction from the interior ministry,” Patzelt explained. “Unfortunately, we have no power to influence the changes in the law. We count it as a great successes when we succeed even in small details, to influence and change [an outcome], such as sending a case for re-consideration.” The Asylum Office is not an independent judge, as Patzelt stressed. “They are in the direct line of command from the Interior Minister’s office – ordered to be as hostile as possible.”

The biggest success occurred earlier this year, when Interior Minister Maria Fekter’s proposal that all asylum seekers should be put into a detention for a week was rejected. Patzelt asserted that this was completely inhumane.

So is Maria Fekter the problem?

“No,” again Patzelt asserted. “Fekter is just a symbol. The ÖVP has been in charge of the Interior Ministry for many years before Fekter came into the picture. The right-wing see their control of the domestic border as crucial to their public support.”

Patzelt insisted that removing Fekter would not change the system; her politics are contradictory, but it is not her fault alone. He uses the metaphor “Human Rights Asbestos” to describe the political attitudes of the Interior Ministry – any new person entering the building becomes infected.

The Austrian government’s decision to turn down Mirilo’s asylum application has set a bad example to potential whistle blowers.

“It’s shameful for the EU, and for such a well-established member as Austria,” criticized Patzelt. “I believe that we should be happy to have cases like Jovan’s. People who suffer feel safe in our country, and we should be proud of it. Unfortunately, we are far away from that.”

For Jovan Mirilo, the accusation that hurt the most was that he himself was a Scorpion, based on an old scorpion tattoo on his chest.

“It is an old tattoo that has nothing to do with the paramilitary group,” said Mirilo, a fact that can be supported by Natasha Kandic, Director of the Humanitarian Law Council. “It is well known who belongs to the certain paramilitary group in the town where I come from. I am not one of them.”

The old networks of the Scorpions are still at large in Serbia today. Even though the country is fighting corruption and organized crime activity, the situation is still far from acceptable, or safe for people such as Jovan Mirilo.

“Most of the people that ruled during the 1990s are still in their positions,” explained Mirilo. For instance, the negative decision from the Austrian Asylum Office was published in one of the Serbian newspapers as a lesson to learn.

And then, suddenly, in the middle of the interview, his tone changed:

“My wife and I are trying our best to keep our daughter away from all of this,” Mirilo said, almost whispering, “but that is a bit hard when you live in an apartment as small as this office.”  Neither Mirilo nor his wife is allowed to work; they live from day to day.

To all of this, the Interior Ministry has no comment.“We have no authority to answer any questions or comment on Mr. Mirilo’s case,” replied Rudolf Gollia, the spokesperson of the ministry, “due to legal restrictions, as well as out of respect for his personal rights.”

Regardless, Mirilo has become the poster child for the principles of asylum seeking in Austria, and by consequence, the EU. His case is not the first and will surely not be the last.

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