Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Zdravko Tolimir. (Photo: ICTY)
The trial of Zdravko Tolimir at the Hague tribunal this week heard how a former policeman saved a 16-year-old Bosniak boy from being killed by Bosnian Serb army, VRS, soldiers.
Tolimir, the former assistant commander for military intelligence and security in the VRS general staff, is charged with eight counts including genocide, conspiring to perpetrate genocide, extermination, murder, expulsion, forced transfer of population and deportation of Bosniaks from Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995.
This week, in a session composed mostly of hearings closed to the public, PW054, a man from Bijeljina who was a VRS soldier until he joined the Bosnian Serb police in August 1994, testified as a prosecution witness under face and voice distortion measures.
In July 1995, PW054 took a 16-year-old Bosniak boy away from a group of imprisoned Bosniak men who were later killed by VRS soldiers, according to the prosecution.
He previously appeared before the tribunal in the 2006 trial of Vujadin Popovic, which dealt with seven Bosnian Serb military and police officials charged with genocide and other crimes committed in Srebrencia and Zepa in 1995.
The court ruled that the Popovic trial testimony would be included onto the record, but a resume would only be read in closed session.
All that was heard in public session was how, in what was referred to as a “field cleaning” operation, a group of Bosniak men had surrendered to the VRS unit of which the witness was a member.
After the fall of Srebrenica, these Bosniak men were trying to make their way towards Tuzla, including the 16-year-old who the witness saved, according to the prosecution.
Most of the documents which were shown during the prosecutor’s examination of the witness were not displayed to the public.
In cross-examination, Tolimir referred to a statement by the witness in which he alleged his commanding officer had told him that “not one member of the mass of civilians and soldiers leaving Srebrenica is to be let through”.
The witness quoted his commander as saying that “not a fly is to be allowed to pass”, which Tolimir suggested was an instruction to stop any further advancement toward Serb positions, rather than as an order to kill any people they met.
In response, the witness maintained that this was an order to kill anyone their unit encountered.
Tolimir also raised doubts concerning the witness’s estimate of the boy's age, since PW054 had, in a report which Tolimir quoted, at one point said that the boy was between “16 and 20”.
“Did you know the boy's year of birth?” Tolimir asked. “This would allow us to calculate it correctly.”
“When I asked him how old he was, he told me,” the witness replied. “I don't know if he lied, but he gave his date of birth and when I asked him how old he was, he said 16. That’s it.”
“So you trusted him that he was 16?” Tolimir asked. “Would you have been able to tell us if he was older?”
“I think so. If he were older, it would show,” the witness responded.
During cross-examination, Tolimir wanted to mention another protected witness in the trial, but prosecutor Nelson Thayer argued that “the purpose of protection is not just to protect the witness, but also to protect the other witnesses.
“It is about that this witness should not be told that the other witness also came here to testify. This is a fact that should not be disclosed, a privilege of the trial parties.”
Thayer noted that PW054 was “interested in knowing what had happened over the past 15 years with that witness and was looking for him” but he warned that it “was not the purpose of these proceedings to disclose such information in any way”.
When asked by the trial chamber whether he had heard what happened to the 16-year-old boy he had saved in July 1995, PW054 said that he knew “he was alive”.
“I was told by the international police,” he said. “The foreign police, after the war. They told me that he is alive.”
Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe then asked how he had come to speak to the authorities about the boy.
“I was in Tuzla on some business, and I wanted to find out what was happening with him, since there were some indications, some said that he was alive, some said that he was not,” the witness said.
The first indictment against Tolimir, who is defending himself, was presented on February 25, 2005. He was arrested on May 31, 2007. In December 2009, he pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in The Hague.
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