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

How Much Did Naser Oric Know?

Bosnian Serb witness places Muslim commander at prison where beatings and murders took place, but raises doubts whether he knew about the mistreatment.
By Merdijana Sadović

“That evening, Kemo started beating me again when I was taken out from the prison cell. Then he took pliers and extracted from my mouth the bits of teeth that were left after the previous night’s beating. The pliers were very broad, so he could extract three teeth in one go. After that, he disinfected my wounds with his urine.”


A slim man in his early fifties, with receding white hair and looking much older than his age, prosecution witness Nedeljko Radic remained calm and composed as he described this night of violent abuse at a police station in Srebrenica in September 1992.


Radic was speaking this week at the trial of Naser Oric, who commanded Muslim forces in the Srebrenica area during the Bosnian war. Oric is charged with responsibility for the mistreatment and deaths of Serb prisoners in Srebrenica, and for alleged plundering and looting of Serb villages in the area by men under his command.


Radic – the first witness to testify in the trial after the tribunal’s winter break – is one of a number of Bosnian Serbs named in the indictment against Oric, which says they were subjected to “physical abuse" and “serious suffering” at the hands of his men. Prosecutors say prisoners were beaten with wooden poles, metal bars and baseball bats, and in some instances died as a result.


The charge against Oric is that he knew about these beatings and deaths and failed either to prevent them or to punish the perpetrators.


Radic confirmed in court that he was severely beaten during the weeks he was held in Srebrenica prison, and said one other detainee was beaten to death during the same period.


He also testified that the accused visited the facility three times during his stay, contradicting claims by Oric’s defence lawyers that he never went there.


But the witness said that in his own encounters with Oric, he - Radic - sought to hide the fact that he and other prisoners had been mistreated.


And he also acknowledged the possibility – put to him by defence lawyers – that the decision by a Muslim soldier to dispose of the body of the prisoner who had been beaten to death suggested an effort to conceal the mistreatment from Oric himself.


Radic said he was taken prisoner when Muslim forces attacked the bauxite mine he was guarding on September 24, 1992. Five of his co-workers were killed in the attack, but Radic survived and was taken to the Srebrenica prison, where he was detained in a small cell with four other Serb prisoners.


After that, he said, they were beaten almost every night. They were treated particularly cruelly, he said, by two men to whom he referred as Mrki and Kemo, the latter being the one who he said pulled out some of his teeth with pliers and urinated in his mouth.


Radic said he was also present when Kemo killed a 58-year-old prisoner, Dragutin Kukic, by hitting him hard on the chest with a log. He said Kukic appeared to have enraged Kemo by cursing his “Ustasha” mother and demanding to know why he was being beaten.


Kukic died almost instantly, Radic said, and his body was thrown into a nearby reservoir the following day in an effort to hide the crime.


During cross-examination, defence counsel John Jones suggested Kemo could in fact have been trying to hide what had happened from his superiors – including Oric – in order to avoid punishment. Radic said he didn’t know, but admitted it was possible.


The parts of Radic’s testimony concerning his meetings with Oric also raised some doubts as to whether the accused really knew how detainees were treated at the Srebrenica prison.


Radic said that during their first meeting, Oric introduced himself, asked whether anyone was being beaten and inquired about what had happened to Kukic.


“We said he died of a heart attack...” Radic told the court. “We were afraid to say that he was killed.”


The next time he visited, Oric brought some meat with him and offered it to the detainees. Radic wasn’t able to chew anything due to the pain in his mouth, but when Oric asked him why he wasn’t eating he was again reluctant to reveal the real reason.


“I said I had a cold,” Radic told the court.


Asked by the prosecution whether he and other inmates had noticeable cuts and injuries, the witness replied, “There were no visible injuries... we were usually beaten on the chest and back, and very rarely on the face.”


Radic, whose teeth were apparently pulled out before he ever met Oric, said the wounds inside his mouth would not necessarily have been obvious.


A recorded conversation – played by the prosecution in court because it included Radic’s name and placed him in the prison during the period in question – also served to illustrate one reason Oric might have had to disallow the mistreatment of prisoners.


Srebrenica was under siege at the time, and Serb prisoners could be used as hard currency to trade with the Bosnian Serb army. On the tape, local Bosnian Serb police chief Rade Bjelanovic was heard discussing with Oric conditions for exchanging detainees, including Radic.


Bjelanovic also warned that he expected all Serb prisoners to be turned over alive and unharmed, or Oric would face “disastrous consequences”.


Radic himself was eventually released from Srebrenica prison on October 16 1992, when he and four others were exchanged for the bodies of 20 dead Muslims.


Defence lawyers will continue the cross-examination of the witness next week.


Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.