COURTSIDE: Srebrenica Trial - A Grand Finale

The most important trial to be heard by the tribunal so far comes to an end.

COURTSIDE: Srebrenica Trial - A Grand Finale

The most important trial to be heard by the tribunal so far comes to an end.

Saturday, 30 June, 2001

Somewhat overshadowed by the transfer of former president Slobodan Milosevic, the trial of General Radislav Krstic, accused of genocide for his alleged role in the Srebrenica massacres, reached its grand finale last week.

The prosecution requested consecutive life sentences for each of the eight counts in the indictment against him. The defence called for a not-guilty verdict on all counts.

Both sides devoted two days to summing up the evidence covered in the 15-month-long trial, the most important to come before the tribunal so far, drawing diametrically opposed interpretations.

The prosecution claimed to have proved beyond reasonable doubt that Krstic was commander of the Bosnian Serb Drina corps at the time of the massacres, in which at least 7,500 Bosniak men and boys died, and, as such, was part of a "genocidal plan" to destroy "in whole or in part the Bosnian Muslim community of Srebrenica as a national, ethnic, racial or religious group".

In an effective conclusion to the prosecution's summing up, prosecutor Mark Harmon described the trial as a triumph of the rule of law and civilisation "over the atavistic impulses that surely motivated him and his collaborators to slaughter thousands of helpless victims; deport 35,000 people from their lands and the lands of their ancestors and to deprive them and their kin of their fundamental human right to life".

Harmon went on to say that in considering an appropriate sentence, he could not see grounds for mitigations. "It is with that in mind, we respectfully request that this honourable trial chamber find the defendant, Radislav Krstic, guilty on all counts and that you sentence him to consecutive life sentences for each count of the indictment for which he is found guilty," he said.

Consecutive life sentences, running one after another, would virtually guarantee Krstic would live out the rest of his life behind bars.

Although the defence called for acquittal on all counts, the main focus of their summing-up homed in on counts 1 and 2 - genocide and complicity in genocide. Indeed, taken as a whole, the defence's closing arguments left the impression they would be content to secure acquittal on these two counts alone, even though the other six counts, which include crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war, MAY also carry life sentences.

Belgrade lawyer Tomislav Visnjic took up the gauntlet on the genocide issue. Krstic and his defence team have never denied that the Srebrenica crimes took place, a line reiterated in Visnjic's summing-up. He said the crimes were "horrible", but nevertheless did not constitute genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention and the tribunal's statute.

"There is no evidence on which the trial chamber could conclude beyond reasonable doubt that the killings were committed with an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, Bosnian Muslims as an ethnic group," Visnjic said.

He then listed a series of questions which prosecutors "could easily answer if there indeed was an intention to destroy Bosnian Muslims as an ethnic group".

These included: why the women and children in Potocari, the UN base just outside Srebrenica, were not killed as Jewish, Armenian and Tutsi women and children had been during other genocides?; why Bosnian Muslim males in Zepa, another enclave captured after Srebrenica, were not killed? ; why was an exit route opened up for a column of men to pass into non-Serb held territory?; and why have prosecutors failed to produce a single document or order demonstrating the alleged aim of the Bosnian Serb army in July 1995 was to destroy Bosnian Muslims as an ethnic group?

Visnjic claimed prosecutors could not answer these questions "because the truth is that the killings in Srebrenica, however shameful and requiring punishment, were not done with an intention to destroy Bosnian Muslims or one part of them".

Krstic's defence argues the killings were largely an act of "revenge" provoked by the Muslims' refusal to surrender to Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic.

Presiding Judge Almiro Rodrigues concluded the hearing by announcing that the trial chamber would try to reach a verdict before the end of July, six years after the massacres.

Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief-of SENSE News Agency.

Support our journalists