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

Karadzic Challenges Pathologist on Remains at Srebrenica

Accused contends that bodies found could have died before July 1995 events.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Christopher Lawrence, witness at the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Christopher Lawrence, witness at the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

Bosnian Serb wartime president Radovan Karadzic this week suggested to an expert witness that bodies found in mass graves after the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre had in fact been there for months or years beforehand.

“Many of the bodies [were found] wearing two or three layers of clothing,” noted Karadzic, who represents himself in the courtroom. “A war had lasted in that area for 44 months…. Do you agree that it’s far more likely that these individuals were killed in winter rather than summer?”.

Prosecution witness Christopher Lawrence replied, “Why they were wearing multiple layers of clothing, I don’t know.”

Lawrence who was formerly the chief forensic pathologist for the Hague tribunal, and is now state forensic pathologist for Tanzania, Australia.

In 1998, working out of a mortuary in the Bosnian city of Visoko, he oversaw the examination of human remains that were exhumed from various mass graves relating to the Srebrenica massacre.

According to the prosecution’s summary of his previous evidence at the tribunal, pathologists working on Lawrence’s team examined 2,239 body bags containing the remains of a minimum of 883 individuals. The team identified more than 1,000 definite gunshot wounds and 44 definite blindfolds.

Some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces when the Srebrenica enclave was captured in July 1995. The massacre has been classified as genocide in previous judgements at the tribunal and at the International Court of Justice, also based in The Hague.

Karadzic is charged with individual and superior responsibility for Srebrenica, as well as for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.

The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that he was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”.

Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run. Witness testimony in this trial got under way in April 2010.

At the beginning of his testimony, Lawrence told prosecutors that he was “dealing with very difficult remains” and as a result it was sometimes impossible to say exactly how a person had died.

“You need to understand that many of these bodies were quite badly decomposed and body parts were no longer associated [with a specific body],” Lawrence said.

In certain cases – as illustrated by photos of a human brain with a bullet lodged in it – it was clear that “the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head”, the witness said.

At other times, however, bodies were “disarticulated”.

“Where bodies were disarticulated and we were not able to put them back together, we could not tell what the cause of death was,” Lawrence said.

He added that he was not able to determine a time of death from his examinations.

Later, Karadzic asked him about the blindfolds found on some of the bodies and showed a photo of what was apparently a blindfolded, badly decomposed human head.

The witness said he thought the photo depicted the front of the head, but he was not sure.

“Don’t you think we’d be able to see the nasal cavity?” Karadzic asked.

“Possibly, but … a lot of facial features have been lost. I cannot tell whether we are looking at the face or the back of the head,” Lawrence said.

Karadzic then produced video footage of “Islamic fighters” who he said wore headbands similar to the blindfolds found in the graves. The witness was unable to confirm this.

Lawrence said that the bodies from one particular grave had bullet wounds in their joints – including elbows, knees and legs – followed by a “fatal gunshot wound to the head”.

“As a pathologist, I never use the word torture, but one wonders if these injuries were not deliberately inflicted,” Lawrence said.

Karadzic suggested this injuries could have been sustained by “scatter-shot fire, opened while the individual was fleeing and moving his arms and legs about”.

The witness said he didn’t know, but that he had only found the pattern in one grave.

Karadzic wondered how bodies in a single grave could be in different states of decomposition, and Lawrence said that the process “can vary from top to bottom” due to differences in oxygen levels and moisture.

The accused once again asked whether the witness was able to “rule out” that the people in the mass grave were killed before July 1995.

“I told you I can’t tell just by looking how long they’ve been dead for. From looking at the bodies alone, I couldn’t rule out that possibility – it would be on the basis of other investigations,” the witness said.

When Karadzic was finished with his cross-examination, the prosecution presented photos related to the accused’s contention that the people must have died in winter because they were found wearing multiple layers of clothing.

“These are still images from Potocari [near Srebrenica] on the 12 and 13 of July, 1995,” prosecuting lawyer Christopher Mitchell told the witness. The photos depicted men wearing long-sleeved shirts, vests and even coats.

An older man in one of the photos wore a red sleeveless sweater and carried a coat. Mitchell then presented another photo which he said showed the remains of this particular man, the red of his sweater still visible.

Karadzic interjected and said he was referring “not to clothing on the upper body but on the lower body”.

The trial will continue in January, after the court’s winter recess.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.