Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Blaskic Trial: Reporter Under Crossfire

Tribunal Update 76: Last Week in The Hague (11-16 May 1998)

The prosecution witness recalled noticing that a day after the Washington Agreement of 24 February 1994, the Croat-Muslim war "stopped at once ... like clicking a switch" and concluded that "one must be grateful for the coherency, cogency, and efficiency of that chain of command." (See Tribunal Update 73).

As expected, General Blaskic's defense did not like Vulliamy's compliment one bit. On Monday, 11 May, during the cross-examination of the prosecution witness, Blaskic's defense lawyer Russel Hayman listed a dozen ceasefire agreements in the Croat-Muslim war that were never honored, asking the witness whether he could conclude that on those occasions "the HVO chain of command failed to work with 'coherency, cogency and efficiency.'"

"I stick to my description," Vulliamy responded, pointing to the differences between local ceasefires or "intervals in the fighting" and the Washington Agreement on the cessation of hostilities, reached under strong U.S. pressure and threat of sanctions.

Furthermore, Vulliamy supplemented his earlier statement with an assertion that "permanent ceasefire was [ordered through] the chain of command going up to Zagreb."

A second detail from Vulliamy's direct examination that the defense team did not like was the quote from the conversation the British reporter had in January 1993 with Filip Filipovic, a HVO Colonel from Travnik (central Bosnia).

According to Vulliamy's testimony, Colonel Filipovic openly cursed Mate Boban (then the top Bosnian Croat political leader) and accused Blaskic (the top HVO leader in the area at that time) for making him "walk on the edge of a knife," i.e. to turn against his Muslim allies.

Defense lawyer Hayman first tried to relativize this statement by asking the witness to confirm that Colonel Filipovic "openly spoke about his readiness to cooperate with the Muslims" (aiming to underscore the "democratic character" of the debate within the HVO), and then asked Vulliamy whether he knew that, in spite of his disagreement with Boban and Blaskic, Colonel Filipovic was promoted to the rank of general. Vulliamy admitted that he did not know that fact.

"But then," the reporter countered, "I can only presume that he went over that [HVO] side of the knife, and not the other [Muslim] side. I know he was a decent man and that he believed in that alliance. I can't blame him. He obviously decided to obey orders."

In order to explain the HVO colonel's choice, Vulliamy quoted what Mate Boban personally told him, that "any deviation will not be tolerated" and that those who dissent "will have to step down or be removed in some other manner," which was, concluded Vulliamy, "pretty menacing".

In an attempt to discredit the witness, Hayman quoted a dozen sentences from Vulliamy's book "Seasons in Hell," written in the style of a reporter's war diary, asking the author whether he still stood by his earlier conclusions.

Some of the sentences were rather selectively taken out of context, which was particularly obvious in the example referred to by Prosecutor Greg Kehoe in the re-direct examination. Hayman had read the sentence that describes the attack on the Muslims in the town of Prozor, which went as follows: "As dawn broke, people started to flee. Mobs had moved into town, firing, willy-nilly, and then began to torch, loot and cleanse the town." Stressing the word "mobs," Hayman asked whether he stuck to such a description, which Vulliamy confirmed.

A while later, however, the prosecutor asked Vulliamy to read the sentence that precedes the one quoted by Hayman. The sentence read by Vulliamy made it clear that "mobs" were actually HVO soldiers, in uniform and with red ribbons on their shoulders.

The cross-examination made Presiding Judge of Trial Chamber I, Claude Jorda, intervene at one point and ask Hayman to stop making requests from the witness to agree or disagree with each sentence from the book. He intervened, as he put it, "not in order to protect the witness, but the judges, since we are not at an institute for political studies." "Destabilization of a witness, if this is your aim, must nevertheless remain within the framework of what that witness had stated in the direct examination," Jorda said, to which Vulliamy responded from the witness stand: "I am not destabilized."

The effects of a witness's testimony can best be gauged by the questions that the judges pose to the witness following direct and cross-examination. And Vulliamy had clearly managed to inspire the judges. Judge Fouad Riad, first intervened during the cross-examination, after the defense lawyer asked whether the HVO ultimatum to the Bosnian Army was a beginning of an "all-out war."

"It was", Vulliamy replied, "but not between the HVO and the Bosnian Army, [it was] the HVO against Muslim civilians." This is where Riad intervened, asking whether this was "war-war, or war against civilians." Certainly, the witness replied, "this was a war against civilians. Very little what happened in Bosnia can be described as war between armies. We like to use term refugees, meaning a side-effect of war between armies, but in this conflict the refugees were the raw material, its raison d'etre. That was the whole point: the removal of the population was what the war was all about." Then, Riad asked again, "Can it be called a massacre?" The witness replied, "Yes, you are right. War is not the strictly correct word. It was worse than war."

Since he had concluded from Vulliamy's testimony that "the aims of ethnic cleansing were defined by Boban and other political leaders," Judge Riad asked Vulliamy whether these leaders also defined the means for the implementation of that policy or whether they left the choice (shelling, burning of villages, killings, persecution of the population, camps ...) to the direct executors.

Vulliamy noted that there were "certain variations" in the choice of means, and that in some regions that policy was implemented with more "enthusiasm" that in others. Judge Riad then asked the witness to rank the Lasva Valley crimes (of which Blaskic is accused) on the comparative list of horrors of the 1993-1994 Croat-Muslim war.

Mostar topped Vulliamy's "list of horrors," but the Lasva Valley - with its Ahmici massacre, a car bomb in Stari Vitez, and its morbid "exchange of corpses," which Vulliamy himself attended (4 Croat for 92 Muslim bodies) - was not "far down on the scale of barbarity."

Presiding Judge Jorda was interested in the witness's opinion on whether Mostar was "an example to be followed ... or avoided [by the HVO] in other parts of Bosnia." According to Vulliamy, for the HVO, Mostar was "a model, a symbol of determination to take what is claimed," and in that sense was "an example to be followed and not something to be avoided."

Answering another question by the same judge, Vulliamy said that Mate Boban had not mentioned the accused Blaskic by name during their conversations, but he often talked about Vitez (the town in the Lasva Valley) and its importance for the "Croatian cause."

However, the witness concluded, keeping in mind that the accused was holding the post of the commander of such an important area of the so-called Herceg-Bosna for a long time, "it is logical to assume that he enjoyed [Boban's] confidence." The fact that the previously mentioned Colonel Filipovic cursed both of them (Boban and Blaskic) in one breath, also points to this.

The only possible conclusion, Vulliamy summed up, is that the accused Blaskic was "part of pressure on Filipovic and other moderate Croats who refused to turn their arms against their erstwhile allies."

Apart from the British reporter, only two more witnesses appeared publicly in the Blaskic trial last week.

The trial is being conducted in the new, small courtroom (see Tribunal Update 75), in which not all of the identity-protection equipment is functioning, so the hearings are closed to the public even in the cases when witnesses request only image and voice distortion.

The first of the two, Canadian Captain Henrick Libert, a member of the UNPROFOR contingent, claimed he never met the accused Blaskic but believed that, as the chief commander in central Bosnia, the accused was responsible for the conduct of the HVO toward the Muslims. "In the army, you can delegate the authority, but not the responsibility as well," reasoned Libert. But, during the cross-examination, the defense scored an important point.

The defense has been attempting to prove that the accused Blaskic cannot be responsible for the crimes committed in Kiseljak, a town where one of his headquarters was located, because he went there only rarely and always escorted by UNPROFOR, since the Bosnian Army controlled the Vitez-Kiseljak road. Responding to the prosecutor's questions, Libert said that Blaskic could have reached Kiseljak "through the forest," but he admitted in the cross-examination that UNPROFOR never went off the main road and entered the forest for fear of land mines.

Sejad Djozic, the imam from the village of Duhri near Kiseljak, was the final witness to publicly take the stand. Imam Djozic testified about the HVO attacks on three villages under his religious jurisdiction and his detention at the HVO army barracks in Kiseljak, from where he was freed by a Catholic friar.

The defense also scored a point in his cross-examination: the witness confirmed that the Muslim villages, about whose suffering he testified, were not attacked by local units of the HVO (under Blaskic's command) but by soldiers from other parts of Bosnia who arrived in the Lasva Valley together with Croat refugees in the aftermath of a Bosnian Army offensive in the summer of 1993.

This brings us back to last week's chief witness, Ed Vulliamy, who left the defense empty-handed. First, the witness confirmed the description from his own book, read to him by defense lawyer Hayman, which ran as follows: "At Busovaca, in the Lasva Valley, it was the [Bosnian] Army which came down from the hills and cleaned out the Croats." But Vulliamy then moved on a counteroffensive, saying: "In the villages east of Busovaca - yes! I am not trying to say that this was all one-way traffic. But it is pretty obvious who has got the upper-hand. It's HVO. Yes, Muslims were attacking as well. I am not denying that."

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