Toronto Star - Canadian troops smuggled Bosnian refugees, memos say

November 28, 1999

1994 probe revealed as Star obtains key defence papers

By Allan Thompson - Toronto Star, Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Canadian peacekeepers were suspected of being paid cash to smuggle refugees across no-man's land in war-torn Bosnia in 1994, confidential military documents show.

The documents did not say how many soldiers were involved and how much cash changed hands.

No charges were ever laid because no witnesses could be found.

A military investigation concluded there had been interference with the preliminary probe.

But military police bungled a crucial early probe into the matter, resulting in lost or destroyed evidence, according to documents marked ``protected,'' and obtained by The Star through an access to information request. And a military police sergeant charged that his commanding officer ordered him not to file a report. The sergeant is quoted in one document as saying the commander told him ``don't worry about it, don't breathe anything about it to anybody. Don't look into it.''

The commanding officer told The Star he can recall one case of sneaking refugees across lines, but denied money was involved. He denied ordering a cover-up.

The military police file - from which most names have been removed - contains a memo dated Sept. 14, 1995, in which the military's National Investigation Service was assigned to look into allegations ``that Canadian Forces personnel were involved in smuggling refugees from the Bosnian Croat-Muslim confederation controlled area to the Bosnian Serb controlled territory in the Visoko area in January, 1994.

``It is further suspected that Canadian Forces personnel may have received cash payment for transporting these civilian refugees,'' the memo states.

Investigators later identified ``nine separate incidents of refugee smuggling, which had been orchestrated'' by a Canadian soldier, one report states.

In the end, the investigation into refugee smuggling was closed because no witnesses could be found. Police did conclude there had been interference with the preliminary investigation, but no one intended to cover up, so no charges were laid.

The officer who commanded the Bosnia mission at the time, Col. Ray Wlasichuk, insisted to The Star that he knew of one case of refugees being surreptitiously transported across confrontation lines, but no money was involved.

``I know there was no personal favours, it was somebody with a humanitarian approach in mind that just went a bit too far,'' Wlasichuk said, calling the soldier involved a ``major who, out of the goodness of his own heart, made the effort to get somebody across,'' even though it was against the rules.

And the soldier allegedly involved was relieved of duty and sent home to face court-martial because of unrelated misconduct.

The dramatic allegations, contained in nearly 150 pages of military police files, is the latest in a series of controversies that have tarnished Canada's military deployment in the Balkans over the last six years.

Earlier, Canadian peacekeepers were found to have staged drunken parties at a mental hospital they were guarding, and a senior commander was recently relieved of duty because of drunkenness. There has also been an alleged cover-up of soldiers being exposed to toxic material in Croatia.

The smuggling was believed to have taken place when Canadian peacekeepers were caught in the middle of the ethnic cleansing campaign and bitter fighting in Bosnia's civil war. The turmoil uprooted thousands of vulnerable civilians and left many trapped on the wrong side of confrontation lines.

Ethnic cleansing claimed thousands of lives during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, as civilians of Serb, Muslim or Croat origin who had lived side by side for generations, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of dividing lines that separated ethnic enclaves. Civilians who feared death at the hands of militias who were purging one ethnic group or another would have been desperate to move across confrontation lines and willing to pay to get through checkpoints.

Wlasichuk, now director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute at the Royal Military College in Kingston, insisted he did not order a military police sergeant to drop the smuggling probe. He maintains he simply told him to focus on the other misconduct, which later resulted in a court-martial.

In the interview, Wlasichuk slammed the National Investigation Service, calling its probe of the alleged command interference ``malicious.''

``They are incompetent,'' he said. ``They dream stuff up and I know how they work and I have a deep hatred for them.''

Investigators found military police who originally looked into the smuggling allegations didn't follow standard procedures on record-keeping and the handling of evidence.

None of the police involved in the preliminary investigation could locate their notes and a key witness statement was lost.

The smuggling allegations surfaced again in November, 1996, when former RCMP deputy commissioner Lowell Thomas was conducting an inquiry into the scandalous behaviour of Canadian soldiers who held drunken parties at the Bakovici mental hospital they were guarding in Bosnia, in 1993-94. Thomas came across a military police sergeant, who contended his attempt to write a police report on the smuggling allegations was thwarted by his commander, Wlasichuk.

Thomas passed the allegation of command interference to then-acting chief of defence Vice-Admiral Larry Murray. Within days, Murray ordered military police to look into whether someone interfered with a police investigation.

But military police had already dropped the original smuggling allegations because of the difficulty of locating the refugees and since the soldier linked to the allegations was already facing unrelated charges, it was decided not to proceed with the smuggling charges, which were harder to prove.

In April, 1997, the National Investigation Service said the investigation was over.

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