A senior police officer in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina threatened to cut the throat of a journalist. Widely hailed as a war hero, Zoran Čegar has spent years in positions of responsibility despite repeated scandals, underscoring a pervasive culture of impunity.
“Do you have any idea who you’re playing with, fool?” Don’t make me rip your throat out!
October 26 was warm and sunny in the dreamy coastal city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, but the exchange outside its modernist Municipal Court building quickly turned dark.
Zoran Čegar, a senior police official from neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, was on trial that day for allegedly defrauding a local businessman. But questioned outside the courthouse by two Bosnian reporters, the seriousness of the case did not prevent him from bursting into a series of crude threats.
“Why didn’t she write that I was a general for 20 years, that I was a national hero and that I defended Bosnia? Čegar then asked turning to his lawyer. “That I was injured three times?
“I had no proof…”, replied the journalist.
“No proof that I’m a hero?” he cried, throwing himself on her. A colleague tried to intervene, but Čegar insisted, calling him a “bastard”, deploying an ethnic slur and threatening to “tear [her] the throat” again.
The scene would have been shocking no matter who Čegar was. But his violent threats against journalists from the Bosnian Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) were all the more disturbing as they came from one of the country’s top law enforcement officials.
Senior officials have since called for Čegar to be fired, and he has been suspended while police investigate. But it is unclear whether he will face any real consequences. During his long and controversial police career – underpinned by a reputation as a heroic defender of Sarajevo at the start of the 1992–96 war – Čegar was repeatedly accused of violence, misconduct and corruption. But the investigations never seemed to get far, even after he was filmed repeatedly punching a civilian in a Sarajevo parking lot earlier this year.
Many say Čegar enjoys political protection, though the internal dynamics of the country’s multiple law enforcement agencies are difficult for outsiders to understand. What is certain is that his continued influence – just three years ago he was a candidate to head the entire police force of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – demonstrates a culture of impunity in Bosnian law enforcement which has not diminished over the years.
The issue is urgent as the European Union moves closer to approving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s membership bid, even as it makes it clear that rule of law reform is high on its wish list .
International attention has recently focused on the Serbian-majority region of the country, Republika Srpska, where nationalist leader Milorad Dodik has repeatedly threatened to secede, but Čegar’s latest provocation highlights the serious problems that remain in the other large entity of the country, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The last comprehensive international effort to reform its law enforcement apparatus ended years ago.
A CIN investigation on Čegar, published a few days before the confrontation at the Dubrovnik court, seems to say it all.
In “The Double Life of Officer Čegar”, reporters used court records and witness interviews to expose how the senior police official spent years engaging in seemingly fraudulent business dealings.
Case after case, former friends or business partners accused Čegar of deceptive practices, including manipulation through deceptive contracts and failure to keep promised payments. Their stories converge on a common tactic: instead of paying cash, Čegar preferred to acquire valuable properties – and in one case, a boat – offering to trade them for assets he didn’t actually own.
Among the men allegedly defrauded by Čegar was Dragan Vikić, his former wartime commander, who claims that Čegar took control of a plot of land that Vikić paid for. Vikić is a legendary figure who even features in a patriotic rock song, but he was unable to prove his case against Čegar in court.
Another case, involving an allegedly appropriated Čegar villa through a misleading power of attorney document, is still in dispute.
And an alleged victim of the police officer didn’t even try the courts. Mehmedalija Žmirić, a businessman from whom Čegar obtained a country estate with an artificial lake, two houses and a stable, left for Germany without recovering the real estate which, according to him, had been taken from him practically under the threat of a weapon.
“It was an armed buy,” Žmirić told reporters, explaining that Čegar had implicitly threatened to have him investigated for growing marijuana. He ended up selling his holdings to Čegar at a bargain price.
Although this case never went to court, CIN reporters discovered that Čegar had used fraudulent documents to secure his title to the property.
Contacted by journalists about these allegations, Čegar hardly bothered to deny them, resorting instead to threats: “I know everything”, he said, adding that “different people” kept him informed of the comings and goings of journalists.
Although Čegar was never convicted of any crime, his ownership of properties across the country – including a luxury villa and multi-storey house in Sarajevo, apartments in other cities and the estate of campaign he allegedly stole – is hard to explain given his official salary. As he admitted in court, he only earns 3,200 Bosnian convertible marks a month, or about $1,600.
“What CIN reported was not common knowledge,” said Aida Čerkez, a longtime local journalist and keen observer of Bosnian cultural and political life. (She is also the editor of OCCRP.) “This is not one of those cases where an investigation reports what everyone already knows. It’s new and they’ve done a great job.
For her, Čegar represents a class of men who may have fought bravely in defense of their city, but whose continued presence in the corridors of power had become harmful.
“He was someone Bosnia needed during the war, violent and resolute,” she says. “But very quickly he became a threat.”
Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist, views Čegar in similar terms. “He is part of a generation… of wartime figures who put themselves on a pedestal that is not appropriate in a democratic society where we are all supposed to be equal before the law,” he says.
For many members of the general public, Čegar is still best known for his war record and his decision to stay and defend Sarajevo even though he was not a Bosnian. In a December 2007 interview with a Croatian daily, he is described as “one of the legends of the Sarajevo war” who helped prevent the Serbs from occupying the city in 1992. In a story circulating in Sarajevo, Čegar helped rebuild the Bosnian police early in the war, when it was devastated by the sudden departure of much of its Serbian staff.
But others wonder about the extent of its role. CIN reported that he left the country soon after the war began, spending most of the following years in Germany and Australia.
A number of observers point to another aspect of his reputation, noting an incident where, in retaliation for the arrest of members of his family, he rounded up Serb civilians and detained them at the Zetra sports hall in the town ; only the intervention of other officials ensured their release.
The controversy did not end there.
As early as 2003, shortly after returning from his years abroad, Čegar was at the center of a media storm for “violent and inappropriate behavior” after he allegedly broke into a parliamentary meeting.
Around the same time, according to documents obtained by CIN, Čegar’s own police department investigated him for alleged extortion and blackmail. But he was never charged and the case was dropped after being cut short by another scandal.
In 2007, after learning he held Australian citizenship under the false name Tommy Brown, the police removed him for having a dual identity. However, he was later reinstated after a court ruled in his favor and eventually rose to the highest position he currently holds: Chief of the Uniformed Police Division of the Police Administration of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After the latest scandal last January, which involved Čegar punching a young parking attendant, he was publicly denounced by the interior minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – but not fired. And CIN reporting made it clear that Čegar’s superiors didn’t even know he was facing serious charges of fraud in Croatia, a revocable offence.
With Bosnia and Herzegovina holding elections in early October, scholars say Čegar’s fate could be decided during the tortuous process of forming a new government.
“It could become an elaborate bargaining chip,” said Mujanović, the political scientist. But the general phenomenon [he highlights] is that the police are not sufficiently transparent and accountable,” he added.
This is important not only for Bosnia’s aspirations to join the European Union, but also for the well-being of its own citizens: “In terms of security and stability, you want to have maximum transparency, maximum of civilian control and maximum accountability built into [law enforcement] organization and operation,” he said.
The case of Čegar shows that there is still a long way to go.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) is OCCRP’s member center in Bosnia and Herzegovina.