Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Beara Finally in Court
A Bosnian Serb security chief accused of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre appeared in court this week some two years after the indictment against him was made public.
Ljubisa Beara arrived in the Netherlands on October 9, after the Belgrade government allegedly “facilitated” his surrender, and he made his first appearance before the tribunal three days later. (See Beara Arrest Puzzle in this issue).
Beara - a tall bespectacled 65-year-old, with receding grey hair - did not enter a plea at this time, but chose instead to call upon his “wartime comrades, who have been indicted and are now fugitives” to surrender voluntarily “as soon as possible”.
This unexpected statement is being seen as an attempt by Beara to persuade the judges that he turned himself in of his own free will and was not arrested by the Serbian authorities, as the tribunal’s prosecutors claim. A voluntary surrender could in theory increase Beara’s chances of being released before his trial begins, and could later be seen by the judges as a mitigating factor if he is eventually found guilty.
Controversy over his “surrender” aside, observers agree that Beara’s appearance in The Hague represents a success for the tribunal and brings it a step closer to unravelling the worst crime in post-war Europe.
When Bosnian Serb forces overran the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995, Beara was the chief of army security and one of the closest associates of its commander Ratko Mladic, now the tribunal’s most wanted fugitive indictee.
The indictment against Beara alleges that he was involved in planning the murder of some 7,000 Muslim men that were taken prisoner in the week after the enclave’s fall.
Beara is one of the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb army officers to appear in front of the tribunal. While he is lower in rank than General Radislav Krstic, recently convicted for aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica, Beara – as a senior member of the army’s general staff - is thought to have wielded comparable if not larger influence.
The fall of Srebrenica resulted in massive expulsion of its Muslim inhabitants, with tens of thousands of its women and children being deported from the enclave. Around 7,000 mainly unarmed Muslim men – soldiers and civilians alike – were captured while attempting to flee through the surrounding woods and were summarily executed. Their bodies were buried in mass graves near the town, and later reburied, in an attempt to cover the traces of the crime.
According to the indictment, Beara was in charge of the Muslim prisoners and coordinated the murder operation by issuing orders related to their capture, detention, transport and execution.
Over the past 18 months, three Bosnian Serb officials who played a significant role in the Srebrenica massacre testified before the tribunal – and have heavily implicated Beara in the process.
Indictees Miroslav Deronjic, Momir Nikolic and Dragan Obrenovic had pleaded guilty to various crimes in and around Srebrenica in the period from 1992 to 1995.
Deronjic, a former top Bosnian Serb official from the nearby township of Bratunac, testified that on July 13, 1995 – just two days after the enclave fell - Beara came to his office in Bratunac “quite happy and … tipsy, not drunk”, and said that he had “orders from the top to kill the prisoners”. At that time, there were thousands of Muslim men and boys detained in Bratunac.
These allegations seemed to be corroborated in a statement given by Momir Nikolic, an intelligence officer in the Bosnian Serb army’s Bratunac brigade, which reads, “In the evening of July 13 I was having dinner at the Bratunac brigade headquarters when I received a call … to report directly to Colonel Beara in the center of Bratunac.”
Nikolic then claims that Beara ordered him to inform another officer that thousands of Muslim prisoners being held in Bratunac would be sent to Zvornik that evening, adding, “Colonel Beara also told me the Muslim prisoners should be detained in the Zvornik area and executed.”
A statement signed by Dragan Obrenovic, deputy commander of the Zvornik brigade, claims that on July 14 he briefed his commander “about Muslim prisoners and the murder operation, in which Beara [was] active”.
Although doubts have been expressed about the credibility of these witnesses, their testimonies could potentially still have a great impact on Beara’s case.
One other piece of evidence which seems to indicate that Beara was involved in the events of July 1995 is an intercepted telephone conversation with between him and General Krstic.
In the July 15, 1995 intercept, Beara can be heard saying he still has “3,500 parcels to distribute”, and asks for Krstic’s help. The judges in the Krstic case concluded that “parcel” was a coded reference to captured Muslim civilians, while “distributing” was the code word for execution.
The prosecutors are hoping that all this evidence will help them prove that Beara personally planned, managed and supervised the single biggest murder operation on European soil since the end of the Second World War.
But many observers, including IWPR sources in the Bosnian government, seem to think that it would still be difficult to prove some of the heaviest charges against Beara, mainly due to the shadowy nature of his position in the Bosnian Serb army.
Security chiefs monitor their own troops, identify spies, spot signs of weakness within the ranks – “not exactly the type to chat about their work on a coffee break”, a source said.
Jan Willem Honig, co-author of the book Srebrenica – Record of a War Crime, and a Dutch scholar who specialises in Bosnian Serb military structures, is convinced that Beara was intimately involved in the massacres.
“If you look at the way in which the Bosnian Serb army operated, it’s clear that Beara had a very significant role,” Honig told IWPR. “Mladic surrounded himself only with trusted people, and Beara was one of them.”
Beara has been indicted on six counts of violating the laws and customs of war, crimes against humanity and the gravest of all crimes – genocide and complicity to genocide. To date, only one person has been convicted on these charges – his former army colleague General Krstic, with whom Beara once spoke of “distributing 3,500 parcels”.
The judges in the Krstic case ruled that Srebrenica was a case of genocide and found him guilty of “aiding and abetting” this. But the trial chamber was not convinced that Krstic had planned or organised it.
In a sentence that may yet prove to be of crucial importance for this case, the judges who sentenced Krstic said, “The evidence strongly suggests that the criminal activity was being directed by some members of the [Bosnian Serb army high command] under command of Ratko Mladic.”
Ljubisa Beara is the first member of the Bosnian Serb army’s main staff to appear in The Hague. He is expected enter a plea on November 9.
Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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