Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Inconsistencies Mar Oric Trial
Tensions remained high at the trial of the wartime Bosnian Muslim leader Naser Oric this week, following a recent incident in which the accused jumped out of his chair to shout at a prosecution witness he accused of involvement in the murders of “thousands of Muslims”.
This week it was the witnesses themselves - local Serbs called by the prosecution to testify about attacks on their villages by Muslim forces in 1992 and 1993 - who tested presiding judge Carmel Agius's patience with a series of racial slurs, disrespectful behaviour and spurious claims to be illiterate.
One man was recalled by defence lawyers to discuss a video which appeared to contradict his earlier testimony that he was dressed in civilian clothing when his village was attacked by men under Oric's command.
Oric – who is viewed as a hero by many Bosnian Muslims for his role in the 1992-95 war – has been called before the Hague tribunal to face charges that he oversaw the plundering and looting of Serb villages and the mistreatment and deaths of Serbs held in a prison in Srebrenica during the conflict.
Witnesses this week said Muslim forces stole food from the villages they attacked and set fire to houses. And they spoke about how Oric's troops beat detained Serbs.
But the week's hearings also underlined a problem that has been evident from the very beginning of Oric's trial – the questionable choice, and poor preparation, of prosecution witnesses whose testimonies often appear to be inconsistent as a result.
First to appear on December 13 was Dragomir Miladinovic, who testified last week that he had trouble reading and writing, making it difficult for defence counsel to present him with written evidence during cross-examination.
The issue has arisen frequently in the case in the past, with a number of prosecution witnesses saying they had problems with their eyesight.
But the elderly Miladinovic launched into his testimony this week by producing a list of all the Serbs he said had been killed in the attack on the village of Jezestica on January 7, 1993, which he said he wanted all the court to see.
After a brief look at the piece of paper, Judge Agius demanded, "Mr Miladinovic, did you write this list yourself?"
"Yes," the witness answered.
"Last Friday, you said you could read only capital letters, and now I can see that all this is written in very small letters," said Judge Agius. "In fact, so small that I myself can hardly see what's on this paper."
The witness appeared unmoved. "Maybe I should have used a bigger piece of paper instead," he said.
Miladinovic went on to describe how the attack on Jezestica was carried out by thousands of "Turks" – a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims which he continued to employ throughout his testimony.
He said the attackers were divided into three groups. The first was involved in "killing and chasing people", the second was busy "looting Serb houses before they were set on fire", and the third group, made up of civilians, was "carrying the stolen goods, mainly food".
During cross-examination, Oric's defence lawyer John Jones asked whether those who were looting houses ate the food straight away. When the witness said they did, Jones put it to him that that might have been because they were "desperately hungry".
The main line of Oric's defence is that acts of plunder by Srebrenica Muslims were in fact desperate attempts to get food into the half-starved enclave.
Again, the witness appeared unimpressed. "Maybe – how should I know?" he replied, with an impatient wave of his hand.
As Miladinovic's testimony came to an end, Judge Agius had a few words to add.
"When I hear you refer to Muslims as 'Turks', I can see you are still slave to the past," he chastised the witness. "It's possible that you think only Serbs were killed in this war – but many Muslims and Croats were killed, too."
Later in the conflict – in July 1995 - the Srebrenica “safe haven” was to be overrun by Serb forces, and up to 8,000 of its men and boys taken prisoner and executed in the following week. This mass murder was recently classified by the Hague tribunal as the first case of legally proven genocide in Europe after the Holocaust.
Next to appear was middle-aged former medic Slavisa Eric, who had previously testified at the trial in October about the attack on his village of Kravica, which was also carried out on January 7.
Eric was recalled to discuss a video shot by Bosnian Serb television on the day of the offensive, which defence lawyers said had been disclosed late but contained "highly relevant and extremely important material regarding events in Kravica".
The witness was visibly upset by questions put to him by defence counsel, who demanded to know why he had claimed to be in civilian clothes on the day his village was attacked, when the video showed him in full uniform.
The evidence could be used to support defence lawyers' claims that the "village guards" referred to by many witnesses, and portrayed by the prosecution as amateur volunteers, were in fact well-armed Bosnian Serb army soldiers. If they can prove this, it might convince judges that the villages attacked by forces under Oric's command were legitimate military targets.
Even during his earlier testimony, Eric had been very aggressive with Oric's second defence counsel Vasvija Vidovic, even swearing at her when she asked him whether he had been a member of the Bratunac brigade which was involved in the massacre of Srebrenica Muslims in July 1995.
The brigade's commander Vidoje Blagojevic was indicted by the Hague tribunal for his alleged role in the massacre and is currently awaiting sentence.
This time, the tension between Eric and Vidovic was almost palpable and, when the witness's tone and behaviour again became inappropriate, Judge Agius was forced to intervene.
"Mr. Eric, I'm warning you," he said. "No comments, no gestures, or you'll regret everything you do."
Lastly, judges heard from Slavoljub Zikic, who is specifically mentioned in the indictment against Oric in relation to charges concerning the mistreatment of prisoners.
The 69-year-old witness was the only one to testify smoothly and consistently. Zikic was arrested by Muslim forces on October 5, 1992, following an attack on his village of Fakovici – an incident listed in the indictment against Oric.
Zikic said he was beaten and mistreated every day during his week-and-a-half detention and that during that time, two of his ribs were broken and a number of his teeth knocked out.
He also described four encounters with Oric himself, who he said came to visit the prisoners in October 1992.
"There was no beating when he was in the building. He always treated us in a fair manner," he told the court.
The trial is now adjourned for the winter recess and is scheduled to resume on January 10.
Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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