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Bosnian Army 'Mistreated' Croat POWs

International observers tell court of their efforts to improve conditions for detainees in Bugojno.
By Alison Freebairn

Croat detainees being held in the central Bosnian town of Bugojno were "treated badly" in clear breach of the Geneva Convention, according to a former member of the European Community Monitoring Mission, ECMM, who testified at The Hague this week.


Lieutenant-Colonel Rudy Gerritsen was a major in the Dutch Army when he was assigned to the ECMM in July 1993, when fighting between the Croat HVO and the Bosnian Army broke out in the Lavsa Valley.


He was testifying on behalf of the prosecution in the trial of Enver Hadzihasanovic, former commander of the Bosnian Army Third Corps, and his co-accused Amir Kubura, who led the Seventh Muslim Brigade.


The witness told the court that the ECMM had initially been involved in mediation between the two opposing sides, but after the Croat forces surrendered and left at the end of July 1993, the international observers concentrated on matters such as prisoners of war, POWs, and other issues.


Meetings to discuss these issues were held almost every day, Lt-Col Gerritsen said, adding that the Croat prisoners were held in a number of locations including school buildings and the basement of a furniture shop.


“The [furniture] salon was a dark place, full of water,” he told the court. “We couldn’t see very well, and as there were guards with us at all times, we couldn’t speak freely either. All we could do was take a note of the POWs’ names, which we then handed over to the authorities.”


When the observers from ECMM first saw the prisoners “it was obvious that they were treated badly”, the witness said, adding that the Geneva Convention appeared to have been breached.


“[The prisoners] were beaten and frightened and could not speak freely,” he said. “I saw blood and bandages, men lying on pallets or on the ground.”


When the international observers raised their concerns with the Bosnian authorities, they were given assurances that the plight of the Croat detainees would be investigated. At the beginning of July, the civil police had been in charge of looking after any prisoners, but after the Croats retreated at the end of the month, the Bosnian army had taken over the duty, he said.


“We told them that the salon was not suitable for housing detainees, that they should not be put in a damp cellar with not enough toilets and no beds at all,” Gerritsen told the court, adding that at least one detainee was known to have been beaten to death.


Later, Gerritsen visited other holding areas in Bugojno, such as the local high school and another school building. The former was “slightly more suitable” for use as a POW centre than the basement of the furniture shop, he added.


When asked by the prosecution whether he thought the authorities had been fully informed and aware of what was going on in Bugojno, the witness answered, “Yes, I’m sure of that.”


Prosecution counsel Tecla Benjamin said, “Was anything at all done [by the Bosnian army] with regard to the treatment of those civilians following the complaints?”


Lt Col Gerritsen said, "I can't be sure - but they were fully aware of the situation."


The indictment alleges that Hadzihasanovic had superior criminal responsibility. It charges him with seven counts of violations of the laws or customs of war - murder, cruel treatment, wanton destruction not justified by military necessity, plunder, and the destruction of religious monuments.


Hadzihasanovic surrendered voluntarily to The Hague and pleaded not guilty to all charges, as did his co-accused Kubura. The trial, under presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, continues.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.


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