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Courtside: Brdjanin Case

By Mirko Klarin in The Hague (TU 289, 11-16 November, 2002)
By IWPR

During the five trials held so far - those of Dusko Tadic, Milan Kovacevic, the Omarska five, the Keraterm three and Milomir Stakic - the prosecution tried to prove that the inmates were held in by barbed wire.


But the defence argued that the British ITN reporters and their cameras were standing inside the fenced area looking outwards, to give the impression that the wire was containing the inmates when in fact they had free movement.


The issue came up again last week in the trial of Radoslav Brdjanin, former crisis staff chief of the Autonomous Region of Krajina (north-west Bosnia), whose zone of responsibility included Trnopolje and other Prijedor camps.


Prosecution witness Dr Idriz Merdzanic provided a new explanation, saying inmates and reporters were both within the camp compound, in two areas separated by barbed wire.


The witness drafted a plan of the camp, which showed both areas. One was a storage space used by a local building materials shop. The other contained inmates from Omarska and Keraterm who were transferred to Trnopolje just before their closure. The ITN reporters were standing in the former when they filmed the detainees in the latter.


Once this footage made its way around the world and sparked global condemnation, the witness told the court that all wire was removed.


Merdzanic was in Trnopolje in two capacities - as an inmate and as camp doctor.


During cross-examination, Brdjanin's defence lawyer John Ackerman tried to persuade the witness to say that Trnopolje was not a prisoner camp at all but “an assembly point” to which the people came freely because it was safer than to remain in villages occupied by Serb forces.


Ackerman said inmates could leave this “assembly point” if they wished, and claimed many went to work or to buy food and returned freely.


Merdzanic rejected these claims, describing machine-gun nests placed around the camp with their gun barrels pointed towards the inmates. He also spoke of killings and beatings, which only stopped after a visit from the International Red Cross in the middle of August.


The witness allowed that it was possible to escape from Trnopolje with certain risk, but added that the real problem was what to do afterwards, as the whole area was under control of Serbian army, paramilitary formations and police.


The doctor said that, in his opinion, the establishment of the camp as “a transit station for expulsion of non-Serbian population” was well planned by top-level Serbian authorities.


But when questioned by the defence, the witness confirmed that he had never seen the accused in Trnopolje.


Mirko Klarin is an IWPR senior editor in The Hague and the editor-in-chief of the SENSE news agency.


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