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

Genocide Trial Witness Backfires

Bosnian Serb regional chief’s defence case shored up by a witness prosecutors hoped would show he was responsible for concentration camps.
By Karen Meirik

At the beginning of this month former Bosnian Serb premier Milorad Dodik appeared as a prosecution witness in the trial of Radoslav Brdjanin, accused of being a key architect of genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s. However, if they expected him to produce damning testimony they will have been sorely disappointed.


Brdjanin has been on trial since January 2000, accused of genocide as well as lesser charges. The indictment against him says he played a “leading role” in a “campaign designed to permanently remove by force, or fear, the non-Serb population from areas designated as part of the [Bosnian Serb] state”. In addition to genocidal acts committed against local Muslims and Croats, Brdjaninin is specifically accused of having overall responsibility for a series of internment camps where inmates were abused and killed.


In May 1992, Brdjanin was put in charge of the “crisis staff” in Bosnian Krajina. This made him the top official in this northern part of the emerging Bosnian Serb state.


Previous witnesses have painted a picture of a man in a powerful position who was aggressively hostile to non-Serbs. But when Dodik gave evidence on July 31 and August 1, he told the trial chamber that Brdjanin didn’t actually wield much political clout, and that real power lay with other leaders. He suggested that the accused was no more than a spokesman for others.


“My impression at the time was that Mr. Brdjanin appeared in public, but the power of decision-making lay with other people,” said Dodik.


Dodik was the last witness to be brought by the prosecution, in a bid to prove that Brdjanin carried overall political responsibility for war crimes committed in the Bosnian Krajina region.


Dodik served as prime minister of Republika Srpska in 1998-2001, and is currently head of the Party of Independent Social Democrats. In 1992 – the year the trial is concerned with – he was a member of the Bosnian Serb assembly, and politically no ally of Brdjanin since the latter was a member of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, while he was in the Alliance of Reformist Forces.


When questioned by the prosecution, however, Dodik avoided attacking the accused, and was reluctant to talk about the concentration camps in which Brdjanin is said to have had a hand. When the prosecution asked him about the Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm and Manjaca camps, he appeared nervous and increasingly uncomfortable. He would not discuss the first three since they were outside the area with which he was familiar. And Manjaca, he asserted, was a collection point, not a camp.


Although earlier in his testimony he had said that the Bosnian Krajina region was run by a strict hierarchy, Dodik now expressed doubt about whether the crisis staff – the wartime local government – exerted any influence over the camps.


“In formal terms, the regional bodies had authority over local levels, but in many municipalities, strong local individuals enjoyed complete independence,” he said, adding that it was men like Simo Drjaca, the former police chief in Prijedor, who were responsible for the camps.


When defence counsel John Ackerman began his cross-examination, the former Bosnian Serb premier appeared to relax. It wasn’t hard to see why – the defence strategy seems to be to show that – as Dodik told the court –Brdjanin was no more than a puppet with no real power.


Under questioning from Ackerman, Dodik said Brdjanin had to get approval from Banja Luka mayor Predrag Radic on major issues. If Brdjanin gave orders that contradicted those issued by other crisis staff members, he would be ignored.


The prosecution can hardly have been pleased that its witness was such a gift for the defence, but it should not have been surprised. When Dodic testified in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, he offered nothing but praise for her efforts to implement the Dayton peace agreement.


Karen Meirik is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.