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

Investigating Srebrenica was 'Suicidal'

Witnesses say Bosnian Serb commanders risked grave consequences for probing massacre.
By Rachel S.

Two defence witnesses in the trial of Vidoje Blagojevic this week said it would have been far too dangerous to investigate those responsible for the Srebrenica killings in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.

Blagojevic, the former Bosnian Serb commander of the Bratunac brigade, is being tried for his role in the onslaught on the enclave and the subsequent mass killings. Among other things, he stands accused of command responsibility for the crimes of his subordinates.

This type of responsibility can be proven only by showing that Blagojevic knew or had reason to know that his troops were going to commit crimes or had already done so - and that he did not take measures to prevent these crimes or punish those responsible.

The assertion that Blagojevic did not punish those who committed crimes was the focus of this week’s testimony.

Predrag Drinic, a former military prosecutor for the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, told the tribunal on June 15 that after the Srebrenica massacre it would have been “impossible” for a brigade commander such as Blagojevic to ensure an investigation was carried out.

The problem, Drinic explained, had to do with the process of handling complaints.

A complaint could not be submitted anonymously - so at every stage of the process, those named would know exactly who had brought it. “There were no protective measures at all,” Drinic told the tribunal.

Another issue concerned the fact that investigations were conducted by superiors of the person against whom a complaint was made. If the accused was head of security for the general staff - as was the case with Ljubisa Beara, who is still on the run following his indictment over his alleged role in the Srebrenica massacre - there was, in principle, no one to refer the case to.

Drinic said that in this case a complaint would have had to be filed with the commander of the VRS’s main staff himself.

At the time, General Ratko Mladic - who served as Blagojevic’s superior and who has been repeatedly depicted throughout the trial as a man with a terrible temper - held this position.

Blagojevic’s lawyer, Michael Karnavas, asked Drinic how realistic it would have been for a commander such as Blagojevic to initiate a complaint against someone as senior as Beara.

Such a person would have to be “gravely concerned” for his own life, and the life of his family, Drinic answered. “These were serious crimes…. This would have been very risky,” he said.

It would also be unrealistic, Drinic continued, for a prosecutor to initiate such a case on his own “bearing in mind the seriousness of the crimes and the level of the officers suspected”. Those suspected of committing crimes were “dangerous people”, Drinic reminded the judges.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Bogoljub Gajic, who appeared before the tribunal on June 14.

A former member of the investigation unit of the east Bosnian corps’ third battalion, Gagic had been tasked with looking into charges of murder, rape, and robbery. He too said it was unlikely that anyone would have issued a complaint against Beara.

Gagic suggested that Beara certainly would have known if any of his subordinates had been involved in atrocities, “I think Beara knew what they had for breakfast let alone what they did that day.”

But issuing a complaint against him or his staff “would have been suicide”, he insisted.

Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.