Abduladhim Maktouf, the first war crimes defendant to be tried in the BiH State Court, was convicted Friday of aiding in the 1993 kidnapping in Travnik of four Croat civilians, and one Serb, who was later beheaded in captivity.
Maktouf was sentenced to five years in prison, the minimum sentence for the charges, by Judge Salem Miso, president of a three member panel. The panel, which could have sentenced Maktouf to over 10 years, took into consideration that he was only assisting the kidnappers and was not directly involved in the murder.
Miso also said that the victims of the kidnapping could ask the Court for financial compensation from Maktouf.
Maktouf was accused of driving one of the two vehicles used for the transport of the victims, and participating and assisting in planning of the kidnapping operation, according to the Court’s decision read by Miso.
Maktouf remained in custody, and his Travnik attorney, Adil Lozo, promised there would be an appeal of the decision.
Lozo said that the panel based the conviction on the testimony of three witnesses, one of whom was also involved in the kidnapping, without any corroborating hard evidence.
In the courtroom, Maktouf accepted his fate calmly, simply shaking his head slowly as Miso read the findings of the Court. Maktouf’s brother, Luej, with tears in his eyes, refused comment as his brother was led away to jail.
Maktouf’s troubles may not be over, even with the conviction.
“I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” American prosecutor Jonathan Schmidt, said Thursday, as he waited for the verdict, about a probe into Maktouf’s business affairs, which predated the war crimes charges investigation.
The business investigation added a bizarre twist to the State Court’s first war crimes trial, which began last September months before BiH’s much anticipated new War Crimes Chamber opened its doors.
The Chamber, with its panels combining local and international judges, has been heralded by the international community as another sign of BiH’s successful transition to rule of law, and a new beginning for reconciliation a decade after the war. The Chamber will take over the burden of most of the cases from the international tribunal in The Hague (ICTY), which will allow it to close by 2010. But the Chamber, due to open in January, and delayed until March, still does not have a single trial in session. The Chamber has also been plagued by delays in transfer of cases from the ICTY and other questions about its viability and credibility.
The Maktouf case, which was tried in the Organized Crime Chamber of the court, has been an unusual war crimes case from the beginning.
Maktouf, an Iraqi-born, former video store operator, was charged with no murders, no rapes, no tortures. When he was suddenly arrested at the court house in June 2004, where he had come to give information to prosecutors in another case, the charges against him included nothing related to war. Maktouf was arrested for forging business documents related to customs duties on the importing of electronics and other items.
Since he was arrested, prosecutors kept him in jail for more than a year, repeatedly returning to court to request further detention, for three months at a time. Then, last September, they revealed an indictment for a war crime, instead of organized crime.
But prosecutors and local government officials know that Maktouf’s history is of far more interest to international law enforcement than the role as a van driver in a 12-year old war crimes kidnapping.
“The prosecution is going after a little fish because it knows that a big fish will come out,” Slobodan Kovač, BiH Minister of Justice, and a former prosecutor, said of the war crimes charge, and other charges that he said could be filed later by prosecutors.
Schmidt refused all comment on the specifics of the Maktouf trial or, any further investigation, but he added: ‘Often there is an arrest when much of the investigation has not been done’ he said.
Schmidt’s motives have been clear to the Maktouf defense team, according to Ismet Mehić, Maktouf’s second attorney.
‘He tried to prove our client is an Al Qaeda organizer here and an operative, but it all failed’ Mehić said.
A fuller background of Maktouf pieced together from police intelligence reports, interviews with a Maktouf business associate and court documents, by a team of journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism in Sarajevo (CIN) shows that the State Court’s first war crimes case may go far beyond war crimes.
Maktouf’s role in the kidnapping came out of his unusual role during the war.
Maktouf, a 46 year-old BiH national, who was born in Iraq, worked as a liaison between the BiH Army and foreign Muslim fighters, or ‘mujahideen’ according to court records. Many of the foreigners arrived in Split, Croatia and Maktouf would drive them to Travnik where some of them became part of a unit called the Al Mujahid.
Maktouf admitted to investigators that he acted as an interpreter and a weapons supplier to the unit, but he denied having anything to do with the kidnapping, according to the Maktouf indictment.
Maktouf drove one of two vans used to transport the hostages, who were to be exchanged for the release of captured mujahideen held by the Croatian Army (HVO), the Maktouf indictment alleged.
Four of the hostages were eventually released, but one was killed in a gruesome ritual beheading at the Al Mujahid camp in Orasac near Travnik, according to the court document.
At the trial, the three key witnesses only gave partial identifications of Maktouf as the driver of one of the two kidnap vans. One of the kidnap victims testified he recognized Maktouf’s voice. A second witness said he never saw Maktouf except in profile. The third witness, who identified Maktouf, was actually involved in the kidnapping.
“The court paid attention to a criminal, and that is a key witness, and organizer of the crime,” Mehić said. The defense team will appeal to BiH courts and to the Council of Europe, he added.
By the time of the hostage-taking indictment last September, Maktouf had already been held in Sarajevo cantonal court detention facility since June while he was investigated in a separate case involving ‘abuse of office and forging official documents’ involving his Travnik and Austrian branches of the Palma company.
Prosecutor Schmidt successfully convinced the Court to hold Maktouf during the investigation, before charges were even filed, because he had a history of intimidating witnesses, according to the indictment. After Maktouf’s arrest, Schmidt added, he had been receiving threatening phone calls himself. “Even the Americans cannot help you, because holy Allah is watching you’ was the approximate wording of one message, Schmidt said in the indictment.
By the time of his September indictment, apparently Maktouf was ready to admit that he had changed documents to avoid paying full customs duty for electronic goods that Palma was importing to BiH.
“When they detained me they said it was for commercial crime, and I confessed what I did and said if what I did with the paperwork is a crime I am ready to face that,“ Maktouf told CIN after final arguments in his trial this week. “When the indictment came and I saw they were charging me for war crimes against civilians I was shocked.”
Attorney Lozo told CIN that Maktouf had changed customs documents like every other importer. Husein Ćosić, a Maktouf business partner, said that he had lowered the value of shipments to pay fewer taxes.
Probably unbeknowst to Maktouf, in January 2004, the U.S. Homeland Security Department in Missouri had become interested in his background. The agency was formed after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack to protect the mainland U.S. from future terrorist attacks.
“He (Maktouf) is the target of a criminal investigation and sources reported that he was the coordinator of Wahhabist group,” read the formal request from Interpol in Washington to Interpol in Sarajevo, obtained by CIN.
Wahhabis are members of a reform movement within Islam, which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. A radical wing of Wahhabism has increasingly targeted Western leaning Arabs and America, and has spurred a number of radical practitioners such as Osama bin Laden.
The BiH Interpol response, also obtained by CIN, said that Maktouf had no warrants or criminal charges filed against him “or special reports sent to prosecutors of BiH or FBiH.”
The Federation’s (FBiH) Intelligence Service (OSS), however, a year and a half earlier had sent a secret report entitled “The Agency’s Findings about the role of A. Maktouf in terrorist activities and organized crime in the Balkans” to prosecutors’ offices at FBiH and in Srednja Bosna and Sarajevo cantons.
That report, issued in September 2002, listed allegations of Maktouf’s involvement with drug trafficking and frequent trips to Arab countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Maktouf was also of interest to Interpol in Austria, which made a similar request about any criminal activities to the office in Sarajevo in 2001, according to a BiH Court document. The BiH Interpol office answered that there had not been any criminal inquires regarding Maktouf when, in fact, the Travnik Prosecutor’s office had already investigated him for war crimes since 1996 and business crimes earlier in 2001, the document said.
Before the war, Maktouf owned a video rental store, called Palma, and was involved in small scale smuggling of cigarettes and gasoline, according to the report.
During the war, Maktouf was actually a member of the “El Mudžahedin” unit of the BiH army whose leaders were a Libyan and an Egyptian, Schmidt alleged in the Maktouf indictment.
In 1996, Maktouf’s life changed, according to the OSS report, when he made a trip to Iran, including making contacts there from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and came back to BiH and Palma suddenly started making significantly more money.
“It is possible to get enormous quantities of narcotics in those countries for the lowest prices and it is probably one of the reasons why Maktouf, according to the findings of the Department, went to Pakistan after Iran,” the OSS report said, “and there are some indications that he had visited Afghanistan too, which brings Maktouf in play… with the organized narco-mafia….”
Husein Ćosić, one of Maktouf’s business partners, interviewed by CIN, also noticed that after the Iran trip Maktouf suddenly started doing a lot more traveling and often arrived in the Graz, Austria office of their company with suitcases of cash.
Maktouf partnered with Ćosić to start an Austrian branch of Palma, which Ćosić ran.
Ćosić said the company was depositing far more cash than their sales of electronics and other items to BiH could account for.
“Maktouf would come into (the office) with a big suitcase full of those marks on the way to Switzerland,” Ćosić said.
His suspicions were confirmed when Maktouf repeatedly had him pick up orders of vases in Vienna and transport them to a business in Stuttgart in Germany run by an Arab from Turkey.
Finally, Ćosić purposely smashed a vase and discovered a yellow-white powder within the walls of the ceramic. “It was the smoothest dust that could melt on your tongue,” similar to the appearance of heroin, and unlike the stone dust that did not dissolve when he tasted it for comparison, Ćosić said.
Maktouf frequently traveled and had long phone conversations with people in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other counties, who he did not know, Ćosić said. He was also visited in Austria by people from Arab countries.
‘I’ve heard that the prosecutor (Schmidt) tried to prove all that (drug trafficking) but it all failed’ said Mehić, Maktouf’s attorney.
Ćosić also describes a comedy of misperceptions by various law enforcement agencies as misconsruing the real character of Maktouf’s ambitions.
“He was compromised with those meetings with Arabs,” Ćosić said. “But those were not meetings to plan any action; it was simply so that he could later brag about it.”
Maktouf did not have political ambitions that would make him a terrorist or make him knowingly take part in a war crime, Ćosić said.
“Maktouf is a very naïve person, he’s only interested in money,” Ćosić said. “He’s only thinking about the money.”
Ćosić believes that it was his own past that actually began the scrutiny by American, Austrian and BiH law enforcement, and led to Maktouf’s reputation as a political trouble-maker.
Orignally, Ćosić said he was questioned about his own wartime role in BiH. Although he did not know Maktouf during the war, Ćosić was also tranporting mujahideen from Canada, Austria and Germany. SFOR troops questioned Ćosić for several days because they believed he was connected with Al Queda.
Ćosić also eventually made a complaint to Austrian authorities against Maktouf over a business debt he said Maktouf owed him.
This increased awareness of their affairs led to full blown investigations of both himself and Maktouf, Ćosić said.
As for the war crimes charges, and allegations that Maktouf was a mujahideen leader, Ćosić found it hard to believe that the man who bragged about his connections one day and worried over the cost of small purchases the next, could be taken seriously.
“Maktouf is not a man who would be giving orders in a war,” Ćosić said. “He had a need to be praised by big shots and I don’t think that he would be able to commit a serious crime.”
Maktouf, who talked with CIN this week after watching the final arguments that eventually led to five more years of prison, with bloodshot eyes of fatigue, said he is a victim.
“I am guilty of being black, or having a beard, or being born in Iraq,” he said. “If I was blond and born in America I wouldn’t be guilty.”