Policeman's murder hit nerve for Cencich

Respect for fellow lawman kept investigator on case

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Another investigator might have bypassed the murder of Muslim police officer Nenad Harmandzic, preferring to focus on crimes with multiple victims.

But John Cencich, investigator with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, pursued the case vigorously out of respect for a fellow policeman.

After joining forces against the Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims fell out in spring 1993 over control of their new country.

Bosnian Croatian warlords Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic and Vinko "Stela" Martinovic unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims in the Mostar region. Cencich assisted in the investigation of various atrocities, but took the lead on the Harmandzic case and the "wooden rifles" incident.

In July 1993, Harmandzic was imprisoned with criminals he had investigated before the war. One day, two of Martinovic's men took Harmandzic and 25 other detainees to Martinovic's Mostar headquarters.

Harmandzic was beaten until he was bloody, then black and blue, then swollen by 7 1/2 to 10 pounds. When the other detainees lined up for the ride back to prison, Harmandzic was not among them.

"What you saw, you did not see. What you heard, you have not heard," Martinovic told the group.

In September 1993, at Martinovic's headquarters near the line separating Bosnian Croatian and Bosnian Muslim forces, four Bosnian Muslim prisoners were given camouflage uniforms, painted wooden rifles and a mission which could have meant death.

The four were forced to walk beside a tank , drawing fire that revealed the locations of Muslim gunners and shielding the Bosnian Croatian fighters who were running behind them. Two of the four were wounded by Muslim fire.

Five years later, the search for evidence led Cencich from Mostar, where he served a search warrant at Martinovic's headquarters and walked the Bulevar, to a mercenary's island hideaway. He interviewed military officials, diplomats, refugees and Martinovic's victims and comrades, traveling to London; Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Cencich built the Harmandzic case with statements from those who had seen the police officer brutalized, observed his deterioration throughout the day and heard Martinovic's plan for explaining the police officer's disappearance. He had statements from those who recalled Harmandzic's fear of Martinovic, with whom he had had runs-ins before the war. He had statements from those who buried Harmandzic and those who heard Martinovic's men talk about the murder.

He had Harmandzic's body, recovered from a park where one of those who buried him had said it would be. The body had numerous fractures, consistent with a severe beating, and a bullet hole in the cheek.

In the wooden rifles case, Cencich had statements from the four forced to walk beside the tank. He also had statements from some of Martinovic's former comrades, including one who said he knew of the operation in advance.

Cencich was present when planes carrying Naletilic and Martinovic, extradited from Croatia, landed in the Netherlands. As exhilarating as it was to take part in arresting the two for crimes against humanity, a more poignant moment came March, 31, 2003, during Cencich's second semester at California University of Pennsylvania.

A three-judge panel convicted Naletilic on eight counts of war crimes and sentenced him to 20 years in prison, while Martinovic was convicted on nine counts, including the Harmandzic and wooden rifles cases, and sentenced to 18 years.

It was unclear who fired the bullet that killed Harmandzic, but the court said the "chain of circumstantial evidence introduced by the prosecution allows only one reasonable conclusion," Martinovic's guilt.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.


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