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

Karadzic Disputes Forensic Reports

Defendant argues that evidence from mass burial sites in Srebrenica area may have been misinterpreted.
By Rachel Irwin
  • William Haglund, prosecution witness in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    William Haglund, prosecution witness in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

Former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic claimed this week that blindfolds found in mass graves near Srebrenica may actually have been bandanas worn by combatants in the Bosnian government army.

The remarks came during the cross-examination of prosecution witness William Haglund, a forensic anthropologist who oversaw the exhumation of three mass graves – Cerska Valley, Lazete 2 and Branjevo farm – in the Srebrenica area in 1996.

Haglund has previously testified in three other trials at the Hague tribunal.

While the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica was declared a demilitarised United Nations “safe area” in 1993, Bosnian Serb forces captured the enclave on July 11 1995. In the days that followed, some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered. The massacre has been classified as genocide in previous judgements at the tribunal and the International Court of Justice.

Karadzic, who was Bosnian Serb president from 1992 to 1996, 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 against him – 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 July 2008 and witness testimony in his trial got under way in April 2010.

He is representing himself in the courtroom.

Karadzic challenges the findings from previous Srebrenica-related trials, and this asked Haglund numerous questions about his working methods.

“Could you discern between those victims who died in July 1995 which were killed in combat as opposed to those which were unlawfully murdered?” he asked him.

Haglund noted the number of blindfolds found in the graves and said that “people don’t fight with their blindfolds on”.

“Did your [local] host tell you that combatants used to wear bandanas on their heads, and that those might not have been blindfolds?” Karadzic asked.

“It’s difficult to see that,” Haglund replied, noting that the material was “tied tight right below the eyes and didn’t slip”.

“When soft tissue disappears from the skull, do they still remain firmly tied?” Karadzic asked.

Haglund responded that “these things won’t migrate” if bodies are close together. If, however, an animal disturbed the bodies, or they if they were left out in the elements, then the material might loosen.

“But not in graves - it’s very difficult to do that,” Haglund continued, noting that his team did also find “a lot of rings of loose cloth” among the remains.

“Could you discern between a bandana and a blindfold?” Karadzic asked.

“I just assumed they were blindfolds,” Haglund said.

“However, if the hosts had… shown you photos of combatants with a cloth around their forehead, that would have been some help to you, right?” Karadzic asked.

“Possibly; I don’t know,” Haglund answered.

According to the prosecution’s summary of Haglund’s evidence, he found that the Cerska grave contained the remains of 150 males aged between 14 and 50. All but one of them died from gunshot wounds. In addition, 48 ligatures were recovered from the grave, with 24 of them still in place.

Haglund told prosecutors this week that the individuals were most likely lined up and “shot in a spray pattern”.

At the Lazete 2 site, Haglund said his team found two “sub graves” known as Lazete 2A and Lazete 2B. A “minimum” of 165 sets of remains were recovered and a total of 104 blindfolds were found. It was concluded that 158 of the 165 individuals died of gunshot wounds.

The Lazete 2B site had been “disturbed”, according to Haglund, meaning that some bodies had been “moved and taken somewhere else”.

At the third site, known as Pilica or Branjevo Farm, Haglund testified that his team found a minimum of 132 individuals, and 77 of them had their wrists tied behind their back.

During his testimony, Haglund also addressed some previous criticism of his work, namely that he removed bodies from the graves too quickly. He said this was due to some members of his team only being used to dealing with skeletal remains, while the remains at these locations were still mostly “complete and all connected together”.

The now deceased chief pathologist who worked on the exhumation also faced a barrage of criticism for changing some of the wording on the cause of death certificates in order for them to say “multiple gunshot wounds” instead of listing a specific number of shots, Haglund said.

Because of this, each report had to go back to the physician who made the original findings, and a lawyer from the Office of the Prosecutor at the tribunal personally visited each doctor, Haglund said.

A panel was also set up to investigate these issues, but it concluded that the overall quality of the work was not jeopardised and that the evidence of war crimes was still “overwhelming”, Haglund told to prosecutors.

Karadzic spent a good deal of time grilling Haglund about who had hired him for the job, and under whose authority he carried out the exhumations. He also noted that the witness used the word “executions” in his final report.

“I shouldn’t have used that word,” Haglund said. “These are deaths and I’m not there to prove executions. I talk for the dead people and not for the tribunal.”

Haglund said that while the report was prepared for the Office of the Prosecutor, “they got what we had actually observed and collected”.

“Were you cautioned to the possibility that victims [in the graves] were there from other times [prior to July 1995]?” Karadzic asked.

“Most of these graves hadn’t been added to – bodies were taken out. These were not old graves.” Haglund said. “I saw no indication of bodies having been there from previous wars or burials. That didn’t show up in our findings.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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