Celebici Trial

Tribunal Update 21: Last week in The Hague (March 24-29, 1997)

Celebici Trial

Tribunal Update 21: Last week in The Hague (March 24-29, 1997)

Saturday, 29 March, 1997

Differences between the defence strategy of the Croat Zdravko Mucic, on the one hand, and the three Muslims accused Zejnil Delalic, Hazim Delic and Esad Landzo on the other, have been apparent from the beginning. Mucic's defence did not engage in debate about the character of the Bosnian war, nor did it try to discredit the witnesses by depicting them as militant Serb nationalists.

The defence lawyers of the other three collaborated in a defence based on these very arguments: that Bosnia was the victim of aggression, and the Celebici detainees were armed rebels acting against a legal and legitimate government. However, as of last week, this joint defence appears to be less monolithic: there have been attempts to shift responsibility from one accused to another, all within the same ethnic group.

Last week, while cross-examining a witness who had made serious accusations against her defendant, the American lawyer Cynthia McMurrey tried to prompt the witness to confirm that in committing the alleged acts, Landzo was actually following orders from Delic.

Four former detainees of the Celebici camp testified last week. Although each of them had experienced his own personal agony and sufferings, their stories basically agree on the general conditions in the camp and in their descriptions of specific incidents - murders, torture, sexual abuse - which they saw or at least heard. Their accounts of the role, in these incidents and in events in the camp as a whole, of the men in the dock and in particular Delic and Landzo, also coincide.

With the exception of Branko Gotovac from the village of Vitnica, last week's witnesses (Mirko Kuljanin, Stevan Gligorevic and protected witness “F”) come from the Serb village of Bradina, near Konjic. From the evidence presented to the Tribunal, people from Bradina met with particularly harsh treatment while they were being taken to Celebici and in the camp itself.

Bradina was attacked and occupied or “liberated”, as the American defence lawyers insisted on putting it, adopting the politically correct language of their Sarajevo colleagues, on May 25 and 26, 1992. The attackers (or “liberators”) were men in black and camouflage uniforms, among whom the witnesses recognised members of the Croat Defence Forces (HOS) and Croatian Defence Council (HVO) formations, and also their neighbours from nearby Muslim villages.

Although the defence, during cross-examination, did its best to convince them otherwise, the witnesses asserted that there was no organised defence of the village, and that of the 600 or so inhabitants of Bradina, only 20-25 had any weapons.

After the village was set ablaze (“Everything was on fire. . . the houses and the cowsheds,” said Kuljanin), the people of Bradina were taken away in the direction of Konjic. At the entrance to the tunnel on the Bradina-Konjic road, the column was stopped, the names of the detainees were taken and all their valuables were taken away, and the first beatings began.

Gligorevic, a teacher, told how he was first ordered to take off his glasses, throw them down on the road and jump on them; then he had to stand still while three men laid into him with feet, fists and rifle butts. After that, the detainees were loaded into a truck and driven to Celebici.

Although they arrived at the camp in different groups over two days, May 26 and 27, 1992, the Bradina witnesses describe the procedure they went through in almost identical terms. They were ordered to stand with their chests and stomachs pressed against the wall near the camp gate, with their hands in the air and their fingers stretched out.

Gligorevic says he was made to stand in that position for seven hours, and that this was more painful than the constant blows from rifle butts and barrels, clubs, stones and so on.

At least one detainee died of the beatings there and then, another died as a result of them the day after, a third was killed when he started running - not that he was trying to run away, said Gligorevic, but he wanted to end the suffering.

And all of this, the witnesses say, was accompanied by curses, mockery, verbal degradation: they had to repeat suras from the Koran and to shout, “Praise Jesus, Merhaba, Selam Aleikum.”

The witnesses said they did not know who had beat them on their arrival in the camp, but the defence counsel for the three Muslims accused persistently suggested to them that the people beating them were Croats. When McMurrey, for the umpteenth time, suggested as much to witness “F”, the presiding Judge Karibi-Whyte said: “He has already told you that they were looking at the wall. How could he have seen? Has he got eyes in his back?”

The Nigerian judge is, in any case, becoming increasingly intolerant of McMurrey's aggressive manner of examining witnesses, and on one occasion last week, he issued her a stinging rebuke: “I have left you at large when some of the things you have said have been complete rubbish. If you continue being irresponsible I think I will have to take a different attitude,” he said.

The first group of 80 to 100 detainees from Bradina, among them Mirko Kuljanin who appeared as a witness last week, was at first housed in the tunnel marked nine on the model of the camp. There, Kuljanin found a rusty nail which he tried to drive into one of the open wounds in his head, in a fruitless effort to end it all. The tunnel was about a metre and a half wide, without light or ventilation.

Gligorevic and “F”, with about 80 other Bradina villagers, were the first guests in hangar 6, which soon became the hub of the camp, with about 240-250 prisoners. In the first few days all the detainees were interrogated and had to sign statements that they had weapons, and that they had been members of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS).

Last week, the defence confronted them with those statements: all of them identified their own signature, but denied the content. “There was a choice: sign or get a thrashing. I signed,” said Gligorevic.

After that, prisoners were called out by name and taken out of the hangar daily. True, the witnesses could not see what was going on outside the hangar, but they could hear howls, screams, the sound of blows, gunshots. And afterwards, more often than not, they would see the consequences on the beaten up unfortunates who were thrown back into the hangar.

At first, people were called out at night, then they started to call people out by day, and then they started beating - and killing - people in the hangar itself, before 250 terrified prisoners. The leading lights in this, according to last week's witnesses, were Delic and Landzo.

Deputy Commander Hazim Delic was, according to all the witnesses so far, the undoubted authority in the camp; he instilled fear and trembling not only in the prisoners but also in the guards. He came to hangar six every day, issued orders, called people out, or beat them on the spot: sometimes everybody, sometimes only his “special patients”, those he had it in for particularly.

The witnesses state that usually, he kicked them or hit them with a shovel-handle (he sometimes broke two or three shovels a day over prisoners' backs) or a baseball bat he carried around. He also had something that the witnesses describe as “a gadget that gave electric shocks.”

Esad Landzo emerged in no better light from the witnesses' accounts. His favourite tricks were to force the detainees to do press-ups while he beat them and to hit them on the back with the bar used to bolt the hangar doors while they crouched with their hands behind their necks.

A particular speciality of his was to “set people on fire”: allegedly, he always carried a flask of petrol, which he would pour over prisoners' hands or feet and then set it alight. Or he would heat a knife in a flame and put it in prisoners' mouths or lay it on their chests.

All last week's witnesses say that they were present when Landzo tortured two brothers: he beat them, forced them to beat each other and after that, forced them, before the 250 prisoners in the hangar, to put their sexual organs in each other's mouths.

In reply to the defence attempt to shift responsibility to Delic, whose orders Landzo had to obey, witness “F” said: “He did it of his own accord, even when Delic wasn't there to give orders.”

When McMurrey reminded him that the defendant was only 18 years old at the time, “F” replied: “I don't know how old he was, but I know he was terrible.”

Support our journalists