ANALYSIS: Tribunal Probes Sarajevo Siege

Trial of Bosnian Serb commander will establish whether war crimes were committed during the siege of Sarajevo

ANALYSIS: Tribunal Probes Sarajevo Siege

Trial of Bosnian Serb commander will establish whether war crimes were committed during the siege of Sarajevo

Saturday, 8 December, 2001

The trial of General Stanislav Galic, the former Bosnian Serb commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps whose forces besieged Sarajevo for 44 months, opened last week with the prosecution focusing on the notorious fact that the shelling of the city was probably the first war crime to be broadcast live to the world.

In his opening statement, Mark Ierace said the world had "watched in horror as the people of Sarajevo were fired upon at will". They had "watched in disbelief as the perpetrators acted with impunity - day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year". It was the feeling of conscience this aroused, he said, which "in no small measure contributed to the establishment of this tribunal".

General Galic has been indicted for this crime on two grounds: direct responsibility, since the prosecutor claims "the unlawful acts were planned or ordered by the accused"; and superior (command) responsibility, because he "did nothing to prevent the campaign from continuing, and did not punish those who were responsible".

If establishing direct responsibility proves difficult - the prosecutor admits he has no evidence the accused recorded his orders in writing - he believes he can establish command responsibility by proving the general knew Sarajevo was being exposed to artillery and sniper fire from the hills where his forces were deployed.

The prosecutor believes one way to prove this will be simply to show there was a TV set at his headquarters in Serb-held Sarajevo, which means he must have followed live broadcasts of the crimes committed against the city like the rest of the world. Ierace said a witness would inform the court that in 1993 "he saw television on in the office of the accused's liaison officer. It was tuned to CNN".

The defence will take the line that everything General Galic might have seen on CNN, BBC, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and other international networks, with the exception of Radovan Karadzic's TV Pale and Slobodan Milosevic's TV Belgrade, was "Muslim propaganda".

In their pre-trial brief, Belgrade lawyer Mara Pilipovic and her assistant, Stephane Piletta Zanin, claim the Muslim side used the media to create "a false image of the situation at the battle front in and around Sarajevo" and that they cannot be seen as "official confirmation" of events.

The brief claims the Muslims presented themselves and the city as "martyrs", creating a "faulty (sic) image", as a result of which "NATO forces intervened against the Serb side, placing itself directly on the side of one of the warring parties".

Thus the defence has signaled it will prove it was only "Muslim propaganda" that led the world to believe Sarajevo was exposed to deliberate and indiscriminate shelling and sniping campaign from 1992 to 1995 in which thousands of civilians were killed.

The Galic case, therefore, is a kind of precedent in tribunal history. In seven years of trials, the Hague court has never faced such a case of straightforward denial. Most of the accused persons have denied their guilt, but not the fact of the crime itself.

Over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, for example, General Radislav Krstic and his Belgrade defence counsels accepted the crime took place, but tried to shift responsibility for the massacre of at least 7,000 Muslim men to General Ratko Mladic and his officers.

Similarly, the defence in the trial of Croatian general Tihomir Blaskic and the Bosnian Croat political leader Dario Kordic never disputed a massacre of Muslim civilians occurred in Ahmici, in Central Bosnia, on April 16, 1993, but only tried to prove their clients did not plan or order the killings.

Again, during trials for crimes committed at the camps of Omarska and Keraterm in north-west Bosnia in 1992: the eight accused accepted grave crimes took place there, but claimed they either did not commit them or were not able to prevent them. And before the end of the trial, the Keraterm troika admitted responsibility for some crimes that took place there in the summer of 1992.

None of all that will be repeated in General Galic's trial. His defence not only disputes his direct and/or command responsibility, but disputes that the crimes described in the indictment took place at all.

The prosecutor's case against General Galic, as Ierace stressed, "is not about WHY the campaign in Sarajevo was fought... but about HOW it was conducted". According to the prosecutor, it was "the first case before this tribunal with an explicit - indeed exclusive - focus upon the conduct of hostilities and, in particular, the scope of a military commander's obligation to protect civilian life during armed combat".

The prosecution does not argue the military campaign over Sarajevo was itself unlawful but asserts "civilians were unlawfully sniped and shelled on such a ... scale as to constitute a deliberate campaign, conducted with the intent of striking terror into every civilian".

The defence flatly disagrees, insisting every action of General Galic's corps represented "a legitimate right to a defence". Furthermore, they say that in their response to Bosnian army attacks, the general's units acted "as to cause minimum consequences for the civilian targets and civilian population".

The defence team say that as the arena of the conflict was a city, "collateral damage" and "unintended casualties amongst civilian population" were inevitable, and that the guilt lies squarely with the Bosnian side "which had failed to evacuate its civilian population".

Given the conditions of warfare in an urban environment, the defence calculate the damage was "minimal", and that while the Bosnian side claims more than 10,000 were killed and the indictment mentions "thousands of victims", they will prove the total civilian death toll "was not more than 262 and about 750 injured". They aim to show this was "a small number" in an urban setting, where up to half a million people lived.

Given his defence, Galic's trial will represent the second stage of the Battle for Sarajevo, only with different means and a different goal. The fight is no longer over control of the city, but over control of the truth and history. The only question is whether General Galic and his team, or prosecutor Ierace and dozens of Sarajevo victims, will provide the most convincing testimony.

Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.

Support our journalists