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

Ground-breaking Srebrenica Guilty Plea

Key suspect provides unprecedented and chilling inside account of the Bosnian Serb atrocity.
By Emir Suljagic

In a watershed confession on May 6, former Bosnian Serb security officer Momir Nikolic pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity for his role in the 1995 killing of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica.


Dressed in a dark green suit, Nikolic appeared visibly disturbed as he appeared before the tribunal. He bit his lips in agitation as he offered his plea.


In exchange for his admission of guilt, the prosecution agreed to withdraw charges of genocide and said they would recommend a sentence of between 15 and 20 years rather than life-imprisonment. Nikolic agreed to testify against three others who are also indicted for the massacres.


Nikolic's guilty plea represents a major breakthrough in the Srebrenica case, which investigators have been pursuing for seven years. In June 2001, the tribunal convicted General Radislav Krstic of genocide in Srebrenica, but he denied the charges to the end, enabling those loyal to him to continue to deny that the killings ever took place.


Nikolic’s confession may bring about a change in the way most Bosnian Serbs perceive what happened in Srebrenica. He comes from the area, he was respected for his contribution during the war, and he had a solid nationalist reputation. All this will lend him credibility among the Serb community as well as on the witness stand.


In his plea statement, Nikolic provided an unprecedented and chilling inside account of the Bosnian Serb murder operation in July 1995, including a description of the meeting in which the decision was made to kill all men and boys and deport women, and the logistics of performing such a large operation were discussed. The indictment against him says that at the time he was assistant commander for security and intelligence with the Bosnian Serbs’ Bratunac brigade, with the rank of captain.


Nikolic told the court that on the morning of July 12, after Serb forces had taken Srebrenica, he met the chief security officer of Drina corps, Colonel Vujadin Popovic, and chief intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Kosoric, outside the Fontana hotel in Bratunac.


By then, thousands of Srebrenica residents had moved into the UN base in Potocari, a village on the outskirts of town, seeking the protection of Dutch peacekeeping troops.


"At that time, Colonel Popovic told me that the thousands of Muslim women and children in Potocari would be transported out of Potocari towards Muslim-held territory in Kladanj, and that the able-bodied Muslim men within the crowd of Muslim civilians would be separated from the crowd, detained temporarily in Bratunac and killed shortly thereafter,” he said.


Nikolic admitted in a signed affidavit attached to the plea agreement that his job was to "help co-ordinate and help organize this operation”, which meant he had to find places to hold the men and boys until they were to be executed.


He followed his orders. "I identified several specific areas," he said, matter-of-factly.


On the evening of the next day, July 13, he met General Ratko Mladic’s chief of security, Colonel Ljubisa Beara, in the centre of Bratunac. Beara ordered him to go to Zvornik and inform a security officer named Drago Nikolic that Muslim prisoners held in Bratunac should be transported to Zvornik and killed. Drago Nikolic - no relation - has also been indicted by the tribunal but is still at large.


Nikolic followed those orders. He returned to Bratunac late that night, in time to attend a meeting with Beara and Miroslav Deronjic, a civilian commissioner for Srebrenica appointed by Radovan Karadzic, as well as Bosnian Serb army colonel Dragomir Vasic at Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, headquarters in town.


"The killing operation was openly discussed at the meeting and all participants indicated that they had been reporting to their various chains of command,” Nikolic said.


The meeting ended at three o'clock in the morning, with Nikolic going over to his brigade headquarters and informing his commander Vidoje Blagojevic of the results.


The majority of captured Muslim men were killed over the next few days.


Nikolic’s work in Srebrenica was not finished. He was subsequently ordered to cover up all traces of the massacre. In September and October 1995, with help from the civilian authorities, his unit dug up the bodies from the execution sites and reburied them elsewhere.


"In September 1995, I was contacted by Colonel Popovic and told to exhume and re-bury Muslim bodies from mid-September to October 1995. This was done in coordination with the Bratunac brigade military police, civilian police, and elements of the 5th engineering battalion of the Drina corps,” he said.


Once the war was over, Nikolic says he attempted to destroy the paper trail. "In the presence of a commission consisting of the chief of security of the Drina corps, Rade Pajic, two more officers whose names I don't recall, and Lazar Ostojic, the documents which could have compromised myself or the Bratunac brigade were destroyed,” Nikolic said.


In May 1996, less than a year after Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica, Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer interviewed Nikolic and asked him about his role in the massacres of the enclave’s men and boys. He claimed to have no idea what she was talking about.


“You are asking me to comment on something I know absolutely nothing about,” he told her.


A year in the tribunal’s jail – Nikolic was arrested on April 1, 2002 – seems to have helped him regain his memory.


That may come as no surprise. Nikolic has always played by the rules.


As a young man in Tito’s Yugoslavia, he had embraced communism and was duly rewarded with a coveted position at Bratunac’s high school, teaching students basic military skills. When communism fell out of fashion, and nationalism became the ideology of choice, Nikolic became a follower of Karadzic’s SDS. He left his teaching job and became a member of the party’s crisis staff. He soon impressed his new bosses and was named as a security officer with the Bratunac brigade.


Now, it seems, he has learned to play by a new set of rules – the tribunal’s.


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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