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Halting Start for Srebrenica Trial

Planned opening speech by chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte postponed until after summer break.
By Michael Farquhar
The trial of seven men accused of involvement in the massacre of thousands of Muslim prisoners from the town of Srebrenica in July 1995 began at the Hague tribunal this week - but, within an hour, it had adjourned for the court’s month-long summer recess.



A hearing on July 13 and part of the next morning’s session were spent discussing preliminary matters, in what was still referred to as a pre-trial conference, before presiding judge Carmel Agius formally announced the start of the trial at the July 14 hearing.



This initial session was expected to be extremely limited in scope. But in the event, even a brief speech due to be given by the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte to mark the occasion was aborted and subsequently put off until after the summer break, following objections from defence lawyers that it was inappropriate.



In the end, having launched the proceedings and refereed the angry clash between the parties over Del Ponte’s statement, Judge Agius spent around half an hour announcing how the trial would be managed and then sent everyone on their way.



The proceedings are the biggest ever seen at the tribunal, involving more individuals standing trial at once than have so far been convicted in The Hague of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre in all the years that the court has been in existence.



Its launch came just days after the eleventh anniversary of the date when Serb troops overran the eastern Bosnian enclave, which had been designated a protected zone by the United Nations, on July 11.



Del Ponte began her speech this week by speaking about the memorial ceremony that she had attended in Srebrenica earlier in the week, at which the remains of over 500 victims were buried in a cemetery that already contained some 2,000.



But the defence lawyers quickly objected that the address was emotive and inappropriate. One, Peter Haynes, had already expressed concerns about the speech the previous day, declaring that if Del Ponte wished to address the world media, she could easily do so in a forum other than the courtroom.



Following the hold-up in her talk, Judge Agius told Del Ponte that she was free to continue with it as long as the chamber were correct in their understanding that it was not to be taken as a formal opening statement in the case.



But the prosecutor reacted angrily to the interruption by the defence, declaring herself “utterly stupefied” by it and promising the defence teams that her words would contain “no emotion, absolutely no emotion”. “Facts, my dear defence lawyers, facts,” she declared across the courtroom.



She also insisted that she did in fact want her speech to be understood as an opening statement in the trial. Eventually, Judge Agius ruled that if this was the case, it would have to wait until the proceedings resume later in the year, when time has been set aside for just that purpose.



The seven accused in the current case are Ljubisa Beara, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Milan Gvero, Radivoje Miletic, Drago Nikolic, Vinko Pandurevic and Vujadin Popovic.



At the time of the Srebrenica atrocity, prosecutors allege that Beara was the chief of security of the main staff of the VRS; Gvero was the assistant commander for morale, legal and religious affairs of the main staff; and Miletic was chief of operations and training, and was standing in for the chief of staff.



Elsewhere within the VRS, prosecutors say Popovic was the assistant commander of security on the staff of the army’s Drina Corps; Pandurevic was in command of the Drina Corps’s Zvornik Brigade; and Nikolic was chief of security of the same brigade, and was responsible for coordinating with police units.



Borovcanin is said to have been the deputy commander of a special police brigade subordinated to the Republika Srpska interior ministry.



All of the accused face charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war for crimes including murder and deportation. Pandurevic, Beara, Popovic, Nikolic and Borovcanin also face charges of genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide.



All seven have pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against them.



Another individual who is included on the same indictment as the seven currently standing trial, Zdravko Tolimir, was allegedly the assistant commander for intelligence and security of the main staff of the VRS. He remains on the run.



Also included on the joint indictment until recently was Milorad Trbic, who is said to have been Nikolic’s assistant. He is in custody in The Hague but his case has been split from the current trial proceedings to give judges time to decide on a prosecution request for his trial to be heard separately in Bosnia.



The trial of the seven Srebrenica suspects is due to resume with opening statements from Del Ponte and the prosecutor assigned to the case, Peter McCloskey, on August 21. At least two of the defence lawyers and one defendant, Gvero, are also expected to address the court.



Judge Agius allowed for the possibility that a hearing might be scheduled prior to that, if any particular issues arise in the meantime that need to be addressed.



Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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