Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vidoje Blagojevic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
A Bosnian Serb army commander convicted for his role in the Srebrenica massacre testified this week that he “knew nothing” about the executions that occurred in July 1995.
Vidoje Blagojevic, the former commander of the Bratunac Brigade of the Bosnian Serb army, was testifying as a defence witness on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.
According to a summary of his evidence that Karadzic read aloud in court, “Colonel Blagojevic never received or gave any order for illegal activities and was not aware of any plan to commit crimes in connection with combat activities [in Srebrenica]. Colonel Blagojevic had no contact with President Karadzic and President Karadzic didn’t issue any orders to him or his brigade. Colonel Blagojevic was unaware of any plan to execute prisoners from Srebrenica.”
Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia, fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995. In the days that followed, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed at sites in the surrounding area. Karadzic is charged with genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation and forcible transfer in relation to the massacre.
Blagojevic has also stood trial at the tribunal and was found guilty in 2005 of complicity to commit genocide and of aiding and abetting murder during the Srebrenica massacre. However, the complicity to genocide conviction was dropped on appeal in 2007 and his sentence was reduced from 17 to 15 years. He was granted early release from prison at the end of last year.
After reading the summary of evidence, Karadzic asked no any further questions.
During the cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Peter McCloskey asked Blagojevic to acknowledge his convictions.
“I was unfortunately convicted in that trial but it was an unfair trial,” the witness replied. “It was an unfair process. My right to a defence was jeopardised. I’ll give you just one example. I was not able to testify. My right to testify in my defence was violated…. It was a kind of a JCE [joint criminal enterprise] by the prosecution and so-called defence which resulted in my conviction.”
“So you were the victim here, Colonel?” McCloskey asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Blagojevic said.
McCloskey pointed out that Blagojevic has said that “crimes were committed in Srebrenica, but by individuals and uncontrolled groups”.
The witness responded by saying that he “condemns every crime” particularly against “vulnerable unprotected victims such as women and children or any person who does not represent a danger”.
“My view is that people who committed [those crimes], which is violation of the law, should be prosecuted and punished. As far as Srebrenica is concerned, what really happened – I cannot be the judge of that. I can only speak about my unit, which was fully under my command, for which I was fully responsible, and for all of its acts as its commander. For all other cases, which went beyond my command, I cannot talk about them. I cannot say what crimes were committed, where and by whom.”
McCloskey asked whether the witness stood by his assertion that crimes were committed by individuals and uncontrolled groups.
“It’s a possibility. It was possible in that chaos for such groups and individuals to act,” Blagojevic said.
“Do you think it’s possible that over 7,000 men and boys could be rounded up, detained, transported, summarily executed and buried in a matter of four days? Could that really have been done by individuals and uncontrolled groups? You’re a military man. Come on, give us the truth.” McCloskey said to the witness.
“Yes, I’m an officer,” Blagojevic replied. I had no knowledge about these [acts] beyond the tasks given to my brigade which I endeavored to carry out the best I could, abiding by the regulations that prevailed at the time over the army. I cannot be the judge of what happened outside of that. I cannot say whether something is possible or not.”
McCloskey then asked “how many Muslim men and boys were detained in and around Bratunac” on July 12 and 13, 1995.
“What do you mean how many? A number?” the witness responded.
“This court knows that your headquarters was right in Bratunac town. They know how small it is, they know all the schools where prisoners were staying. They know a lot. You were there. You had front-row desk. How many?” McCloskey asked.
“I did not know that and I did not have an overview of the situation. I did not have insight,” Blagojevic maintained.
Later, when Karadzic had a chance to ask some additional questions, Blagojevic reiterated that he knew nothing about the executions that took place.
“I didn’t know then. I don’t know now. I know nothing. I don’t know a thing. I really do not,” he said.
Also testifying very briefly this week was Zdravko Tolimir, the former assistant commander for intelligence and security of the Bosnian Serb army main staff. He was convicted in December 2012 of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. His case is currently on appeal.
Tolimir appeared as a defence witness in the Karadzic trial only after a subpoena forced him to do so. Upon taking the oath to tell the truth, he made the sign of the cross several times.
Karadzic asked him only a few questions.
“Did you ever inform me, either orally or in writing, that prisoners would be, were being or had been executed?” the accused asked.
“Mr President, as far as Srebrenica, the only time I talked to you was on July 9, 1995 and then I shared with you the information that was received by the main staff, which was that the army of Republika Srpska was coming to Srebrenica. There were no prisoners at that time. You said if they [the army] could take Srebrenica, they should. I drafted a document to that effect, and sent it to the units and the main staff for their information,” Tolimir said.
He said that in the document, he told them “that you [Karadzic] ordered that they should be mindful of civilians, UNPROFOR [UN peacekeepers] and prisoners of war. However, at that time there were no prisoners of war.
“That was my last conversation and contact with you regarding Srebrenica and the situation there. Later on, I was appointed assistant commander at Zepa, which is 20 kilometres away from Srebrenica and there was no communication between the two [enclaves]. I did not communicate with you again, because I was not in a position to know about those events… because when we spoke there were no prisoners, and I could not inform you about something I didn’t know or see,” Tolimir said.
After consulting for a few minutes, the prosecution decided not to cross-examine the witness.
“May these proceedings finish as God wishes and not as I wish, and may God’s peace be with you,” Tolimir said before leaving the courtroom.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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