Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina – When Edin Hadzic sent an email to his employer, Denmark’s Carlsberg beer company, requesting for a large, framed picture of convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic to be removed from the site of Serbia’s branch, he did not expect to be fired and for the incident to drag into a lengthy legal battle.
“When it comes to Carlsberg, everything surprised me,” Hadzic told Al Jazeera from Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. “Their behaviour is totally inappropriate. I can’t believe [what they’ve done].”
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Hadzic, a supply chain manager who had been working for the Bosnian branch of Carlsberg for nearly nine years, was first informed of the picture of the former Serb general by a concerned driver in 2014.
On the phone, one of the customer’s drivers expressed disbelief at the framed photo, which was placed at a spot visible for all drivers who arrived on site to load up their trucks.
Hadzic sent an email to his superior in Belgrade requesting for the picture spotted on site in Celarevo, Serbia to be taken down.
“This is about a person who directly ordered the killing of captured Bosniaks,” Hadzic wrote.
Four days later, Hadzic, a Bosniak and father of two children, was fired from his position.
On November 17, 2014, his Serbian boss arrived from Belgrade for their meeting in Sarajevo and offered him a severance payment to leave the company quietly.
When Hadzic refused, his superior informed him he was being let go due to “organisational and economical reasons”.
“They were hiring at the time I was fired. My results [at work] were second to none. And it was so obvious that this was ad hominem attack on me,” Hadzic said.
Half an hour later, the Bosniak receptionist was also let go from her job, he said.
In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague sentenced Mladic, also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, to life in prison, convicting him of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
His crimes, including his leading role in the Srebrenica genocide as well as attacking and murdering civilians in the besieged capital of Sarajevo, ranked “among the most heinous known to humankind”, according to the tribunal’s presiding judge, Alphons Orie.
Hadzic took the case to the courts, and after seven years, the Cantonal court in Sarajevo ruled in 2021 that he had been unlawfully fired by the company.
The court ordered Carlsberg to immediately reinstate Hadzic in the same or equivalent position and to compensate him for his lost salary and social contributions.
Hadzic, who has a university degree and more than 30 years of experience, said they have not done so in full and offered him only a demoted position as an unskilled warehouse worker.
He is now taking the case before the courts again, which will take up to four years to reach another ruling, making the whole ordeal a 12-year-old legal case, Hadzic said.
“It really doesn’t make sense any more. A judgement that is not reached in a certain period of time, afterwards simply loses its meaning,” he said.
A year before his firing, he recalled the then CEO of Carlsberg Serbia, Gabor Bekefi, had complained to him there are “only Muslims” (referring to Bosniaks) working in the Sarajevo branch.
Following Hadzic’s dismissal, eight other Bosniak staff members (out of a team of 14) in the Sarajevo management team were replaced by different nationalities, all within three years.
“Carlsberg was discriminating against us on a national basis … all nine people have been replaced by people of different nationalities. This isn’t something that could happen by coincidence,” Hadzic said.
“Of course, people weren’t told, ‘We’re going to fire you because you’re Bosniak – or Muslim, [as the CEO said] – but there was a way to get rid of certain people, whether it’s by financial compensation, or pressure at work.”
In a letter to Carlsberg sent by Hadzic’s lawyer Amar Bajramovic, a Serbian national corroborated Hadzic’s claim and said he was willing to testify to Carlsberg under strict confidentiality – fearing safety for his family – that his superior had tasked him with changing the “national structure of the company”.
“When [the Serbian employee] refused, he was asked to leave,” Bajramovic wrote.
Hadzic said he sent letters to Carlsberg about the situation, but did not get any answers.
Although the picture of Mladic was taken down, Carlsberg never launched an investigation.
“Generally, one views Nordic countries as being the epitome of democracy, human rights, human freedoms and then these kind of unbelievable things happen,” Hadzic said.
“But you see [in emailed responses from Carlsberg headquarters based in Denmark] that they don’t care, they’re not interested. They send an answer that is full of empty phrases that don’t mean anything.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Carlsberg Serbia disputed Hadzic’s claims, saying the company “fulfilled all its obligations in accordance with labour laws and reinstated Edin Hadzic to his previous position”, and that he later quit voluntarily.
“All outstanding wages and contributions were paid to the employee, and thus, the company complied with the decisions of the Supreme and Cantonal courts, demonstrating a fair approach to employees and a determination to create a harmonious atmosphere that allows all employees to unleash their full potential at work,” the statement read.
In 2015, Carlsberg responded to Hadzic in a letter writing “that what was described in Mr. Hadzic’s email was incompatible with Carlsberg Group’s values and principles”, but repeated that Hadzic’s role was terminated due to “restructuring”.
But Bosnia’s Supreme Court of the Federation rejected Carlsberg’s appeal in 2022, noting in its ruling that the company was hiring at the time of Hadzic’s firing, including for a manager position that held the same duties as Hadzic had.
Georgio Konstandi, a Greek activist who has researched the Bosnian genocide, launched a campaign this year, calling for Carlsberg to fulfil its legal obligations and conduct an investigation and provide an explanation as to why Bosniak employees were replaced with Serb workers.
“The allegations being made by Edin Hadzic as well as the second whistleblower whose testimony I published on social media are incredibly serious. They imply a culture of unaccountability within Carlsberg SE Europe/Serbia, one which is no doubt facilitated by a political environment in which glorifying genocide deniers and anti-Bosniak discourse is sanctioned from the very top,” Konstandi told Al Jazeera.
“I have reached out to Carlsberg SE Europe on more than one occasion so we may work together to investigate the allegations. If the allegations are baseless, as they claim, they should have no problem investigating the matter in a transparent manner.”
Hadzic said problematic behaviour in the company started as far back as 2010, when Carlsberg Serbia launched an advertising campaign handing out jerseys of the Serbian football team in Bosnia.
The jerseys had the 4S symbol on them, insignia which was commonly used by Serb paramilitaries and convicted war criminals while committing atrocities against non-Serbs during the war in Bosnia.
When he sent an email, advising against the jerseys, he was told by a Carlsberg Serbia employee that, “the next time I write something against Serbia, I and my colleague Amela S [the receptionist] will get fired”, he said, a threat which came true four years later.
“Can you imagine if someone after World War II, started an advertising campaign distributing [Nazi] German jerseys in France, for example. Imagine that those jerseys had the same coat of arms that was on the uniforms of soldiers who committed genocide. It happened to us and we complained,” Hadzic said.
As a Canadian citizen, he said, he was disappointed to hear in October last year that Carlsberg became a sponsor of Canada Soccer, the governing body for football in the country and has reached out to the football association informing them of the lack of “Canadian values” the beer company holds.
Hadzic said some people may view the case as “water under the bridge”, but one needs to fight against every injustice.
“I don’t know where my sons will live, but I have to make it possible for them to live here if they decide to. I need to do everything in my power to make this a country where all people will be welcome regardless of skin colour, nationality, orientation, of any nature.
“I can’t say, ‘Let it be, it’s not my problem,’ and then one morning we wake up with tanks [surrounding the city] and you watch [the city be hit with shells] for 1,500 days,” he said, referring to the siege of Sarajevo that was held by Serb forces from 1992 to 1995.
“We have to fight against any kind of injustice, otherwise it’s not good.”