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Halilovic Defence to be Shortest Ever

Lawyers plan to call only seven witnesses in trial of former top Bosnian army general.
By Merdijana Sadović

Lawyers for top Bosnian army general Sefer Halilovic are due to begin presenting their case on June 27, in what is planned to be the shortest ever defence phase before the Hague tribunal.

At a pre-defence conference held earlier this week, judges heard that the lawyers are calling only seven witnesses to the court, with another twenty-three providing written testimony. “This will be a very short defence case,” Halilovic’s lawyer Peter Morrissey told the judges, estimating that it may take a total of two weeks.

Former Bosnian army chief of staff Halilovic is charged with a single count of violations of the laws or customs of war in connection with the murders of 62 Bosnian Croats in the villages of Grabovica and Uzdol in September 1993, during an operation to ease the blockade of Mostar. He is also accused of failure to prevent the crimes or punish the perpetrators afterwards.

Since the trial began at the end of January, the prosecutors – who wrapped up their case in four months – brought 38 witnesses to The Hague, with another two providing written statements, in order to prove Halilovic’s responsibility as a commanding officer at the time of the crimes.

Before the trial started, Halilovic’s lawyers said they planned to base their defence on the fact that their client was never in de facto command of the whole operation and was only involved as part of an “inspection team”, with no authority over the troops involved. And Halilovic himself maintains that the massacres were in fact carried out as part of a power struggle within the Bosnian political and military hierarchy, which he lost.

The prosecution case has caused quite a stir in Sarajevo, since they shed new light on some of the darkest moments of the Bosnian army during the war, which are – some 12 years on – still shrouded in secrecy.

What has emerged in court about the September 1993 massacres, in the Croat villages of Grabovica and Uzdol, has been received with considerable interest among Halilovic’s fellow citizens. But some Sarajevo observers have expressed concern that the prosecution case may be based, in part, on evidence from biased or unreliable sources.

At the beginning of the trial, the prosecutors said they would prove that Halilovic - whom they described as “the commander who wanted to have the glory, but not the responsibility of command” - failed to take appropriate measures to either prevent murders of Croat civilians in Grabovica and Uzdol, or to punish the perpetrators afterwards.

They claimed he personally picked units from Sarajevo’s notorious Ninth and Tenth Brigades to take part in the operation – dubbed Neretva 93 – to ease the blockade on the city of Mostar, despite their reputation for lawlessness and lack of military discipline, in the hope that they would help him regain his former glory and power.

Halilovic, who was the most senior commander of Muslim forces in Bosnia at the beginning of the war, was pushed aside by the arrival in the top position of another officer, General Rasim Delic, just before the operation started.

Delic has also been indicted by the tribunal for crimes allegedly committed by units of foreign fighters – known as mujahedin – in Central Bosnia during the war and has recently been granted provisional release pending trial.

The prosecutors have said that Halilovic was not only aware of the murders in Grabovica and Uzdol committed by his subordinates, but that he ignored orders issued by General Delic to halt the military operation until the perpetrators were identified and isolated.

Witnesses called by the prosecution have included first-hand witnesses, Bosnian army insiders and even some of those who have been accused of carrying out the massacres themselves. Some of the most disturbing accounts were heard from children who witnessed the murders of their whole families.

A young man from Grabovica, who was only ten years old at the time, told the court how soldiers, allegedly under Halilovic’s command, killed his parents, grandparents and a four-year old sister in cold blood [TU no 392, 04-Feb-05].

A member of the Bosnian army’s Ninth Brigade, currently in jail in Sarajevo after confessing to murder, gave a chilling account of the September 1993 massacre in which he confirmed that he and other soldiers from his unit killed the boy’s family for no apparent reason.

The prosecutors have argued that Halilovic made a crucial mistake when he allowed the unruly units from Sarajevo to be billeted in Croat houses in Grabovica, ignoring the potential threat they might pose to the civilians.

Thirty-three people – including children and elderly - were killed as a result of this decision, they claim.

A few days after the massacre in Grabovica, prosecutors claim that Halilovic ignored an order from his superiors to reconsider the military operation. Instead, he sent soldiers of the Prozor Battalion to attack the Croat village of Uzdol, even though these troops “had recently suffered a crushing defeat by [Bosnian Croat army], HVO, and had a strong feeling of revenge”.

BBC journalist Kate Adie, who testified in April, told the court about the 22 dead bodies she saw in Uzdol.

“A lot of them didn’t have shoes on,” she said. “It occurred to me that these people had been indoors [when they were killed].”

Adie also described how the houses in the “ghost village” were left intact – “the impression I got was that there had been some sort of revenge act taking place”.

But the most damning and controversial of the prosecution witnesses was Ramiz “Celo” Delacic, the notorious former deputy commander of the Ninth Brigade. His testimony - apparently very incriminating for the accused - drew the attention of observers both in Bosnia and at The Hague [TU No 407, 20-May-05].

But his own criminal record - and his own potential interest in blaming the crimes on others - have raised doubts about his credibility. Delalic made his appearance as a prosecution witness while on bail, charged with an unrelated murder. He is also still under investigation by the Bosnian authorities for his role in the Grabovica massacre.

According to the indictment against Halilovic, Delalic was present in Grabovica, and ordered that the bodies of those killed should be hidden. Some bodies were buried and others burned. Delalic – who was once a loyal supporter of Halilovic – confirmed the prosecutor’s argument that the whole Neretva 93 operation was designed to restore Halilovic to the top job in the Bosnian army – a position he lost to Delic, who had been appointed commander-in-chief three months before.

Delalic said in court that “Halilovic suggested the physical removal of Delic”, and that he, Delalic, had volunteered to kill the commander-in-chief himself. He claimed that instead it was decided that “something had to be done to restore the reputation of Halilovic and in turn undermine Delic’s”, and the operation Neretva 93 seemed like a perfect solution.

While the defence cross-examination tried to show that Halilovic was never in command and had no authority over the troops involved, Delalic strongly disagreed. “The commander at the end of the chain was Halilovic,” he told the court.

But Halilovic’s defence lawyer Peter Morrissey put it to the court that that Delalic was an unreliable witness, whose criminal record makes him untrustworthy, and may be just trying to protect himself from prosecution.

Delalic has a lengthy criminal record in Bosnia. Numerous charges against him, including murder, robbery, theft and violent assaults, have been dropped after witnesses withdrew their testimonies.

Observers in Sarajevo are also sceptical about his reliability.

“I don’t believe a word Delalic said in court,” claimed Emir Suljagic, Sarajevo-based reporter for the magazine Dani, adding that other testimonies from former members of the Bosnian army were just as unreliable. “Most of them are now trying to shift the blame to Halilovic and conceal their own guilt.”

Adnan Buturovic, a reporter for the independent magazine Slobodna Bosna, agreed. “I doubt many of the things Delalic and other potentially incriminating witnesses said in court were true – they all had a hidden agenda,” he said.

In his view, the overall prosecution case has failed to prove that Halilovic personally picked units from the Ninth and Tenth Brigades for the Neretva 93 operation and that he was de facto in command of the troops involved in the massacres.

But another Sarajevo-based journalist with the Dnevni Avaz daily, Sead Numanovic, who has followed Halilovic’s career from the start, said the prosecutors had done “an exceptionally good job” at this trial.

“They brought very strong and reliable witnesses, who shed some new light on the events in Grabovica and Uzdol,” he said.

According to Numanovic, the main problem facing Halilovic’s defence team is that their client believes the massacres were part of a bizarre conspiracy against him. The court recently heard parts of Halilovic’s statement to prosecutors in 2001, in which he alleges that the massacres in Grabovica and Uzdol were plotted by Delic and Bosnia’s wartime president Alija Izetbegovic in order to discredit him.

“The defence will need a miracle because they have a double task – to defend Sefer Halilovic from his charges and from himself,” said Numanovic. “It’s a mission impossible.”

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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