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

Bosnian Officer Testifies Against Former Commander

Witness provides evidence that Third Corps commander was responsible for actions of his men.
By Alison Freebairn

Bosnian army commander Enver Hadzihasanovic, accused of command responsibility for crimes committed by his forces, was in sole charge of issuing them orders, although clear procedures for their authentication by subordinates were not always followed, a prosecution witness told the tribunal this week.

The claims were made by retired colonel Muradif Mekic, ex-chief of staff of the Third Corps, who was appearing as a prosecution witness in the trial of his old commander Enver Hadzihasanovic and Emir Kubura, former head of the corps’ Seventh Muslim Brigade. The two men are charged with seven and six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war respectively. They have entered not guilty pleas.

As Hadzihasanovic is accused of command responsibility for crimes committed by the Third Corps, it is important for the prosecution to prove that he was in charge of issuing orders to his men.

The court heard that Mekic had served with the former Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, for nearly 30 years before defecting to join the Bosnian army when hostilities broke out in early 1991. He was later instrumental in forming the Third Corps and was third in its chain of command under then-general Hadzihasanovic.

Mekic, under questioning from prosecutor Daryl Mundis, told the court that conditions in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, where the corps had it headquarters, were far from ideal and that proper procedures for handing down commands were sometimes not followed.

“This was because there were very few of us [in the corps] who were professional soldiers,” he said. “We had taxi drivers who had only ever finished primary school [working as] brigade commanders. People were uneducated and untrained, and as a result certain mistakes would be made.”

The witness told the court that strict procedures were in place for the issuing of all orders, be they combat or logistical.

After discussion with advisers, the commander, Hadzihasanovic, would make a decision. It would then be typed on the corps’ sole computer, printed and signed by an authorised person, registered, stamped, before being taken to the communications centre to be sent to the person or persons it was intended for.

While all orders were issued by the corps commander, they could be signed by his deputy or the chief of staff – at that time Mekic – in the absence of their superior.

Three stamps were issued for this purpose, the witness said. While seemingly identical, the stamp used for the commander’s signature was marked with a “1”, that for the deputy commander a “2”, and the chief of staff a “3”.

If all three of the highest-ranking officers were in the field, they would ensure that a fourth trusted officer was present to sign orders in their place. In such a circumstance, the signature of this trusted officer would be endorsed with the “3” stamp.

But the witness admitted that sometimes the authentication procedure was not adhered to, “In reality, the rules were not always followed.”

Defence counsel Edina Residov asked the witness to elaborate on the problems facing the Third Corps at the time, including a lack of communication equipment at the lower levels of the force and a successful jamming operation carried out by the Croatian army, which had access to sophisticated technology inherited from the JNA.

Mekic agreed that these difficulties had led to a number of violations of the corps’ order procedures, although he stressed that there was no way of knowing how many deviations had occurred, or how serious they were.

Presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti asked Mekic to confirm the numbering on the three stamps used to authenticate the signatures on the force’s orders, and showed the witness a series of Third Corps documents – including one signed by Hadzihasanovic, but authorised with the number “3” stamp that was supposed to indicate Mekic’s own signature. “I can’t explain this,” the witness said.

During his testimony, Mekic also gave the trial chamber an insight into the formation of the corps that would ultimately be led by Hadzihasanovic.

The witness told the court than he and Hadzihasanovic, along with two others, had slipped out of Sarajevo on the evening of November 1, 1992, and headed for Zenica on a covert mission under the orders of the Bosnian army command.

“We went to Zenica to implement the plan codenamed ‘envelope’, which was [designed] to lift the blockade of Sarajevo from the outside,” the witness said, explaining that the four had been ordered to organise Bosnian army units in the Zenica area, and from there launch an operation to break the siege and free the city.

“On the evening of November 2 we arrived in Zenica. After living under unbearable conditions [in Sarajevo], I find it hard to look back to that period. I can remember horrific events – we felt as if we had come to a different planet,” he said, adding that something as simple as Zenica’s working streetlights had filled him and his comrades with wonder.

The four had been led to believe that units of soldiers were waiting for them to take control of on their arrival, but this was not the case.

“[The units] did not exist. The First Zenica Brigade existed on paper only,” Mekic said.

When the true nature of the situation became apparent, the four contacted Bosnian army command to say that, without the promised units, it was impossible for the original orders to be carried out.

The “envelope” plan was abandoned immediately, the witness said, and the Bosnian army instead ordered the men to recruit soldiers in the Zenica area and organise them into a series of units - forming an entirely new military force, which would later be named Third Corps.

The trial has now adjourned and is expected to restart on July 12.

Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in The Hague.