Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Vujadin Popovic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
A former officer in the Bosnian Serb military who was convicted of genocide for his role in the Srebrenica massacre this week appeared as a witness on behalf of Radovan Karadzic, his wartime superior.
Defence witness Vujadin Popovic, who was chief of security for the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army, was convicted at the Hague tribunal in June 2010 of genocide, extermination, persecution, and murder in relation to the July 1995 massacre.
Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia, was declared a United Nations safe area in 1993 but fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995. In the following days, more than 7,000 men and boys were killed at various execution sites in the surrounding area.
Judges found that Popovic “was entrenched in several aspects of the operation, and he participated with resolve”.
“Popovic knew the intent was not just to kill those who had fallen into the hands of the Bosnian Serb forces, but to kill as many as possible with the aim of destroying the group. Popovic’s ensuing robust participation in all aspects of the plan demonstrates that he not only knew of this intent to destroy, he also shared it,” the 2010 verdict said.
Judges concluded that Popovic was present at several killing sites, including “at the field in Orahovac as the executions took place”. (For more on this, see Convictions in Srebrenica Seven Trial.)
Popovic was sentenced to life in prison. An appeal hearing in the case will be held in December.
The accused Karadzic, who represents himself in court, asked his witness very few questions this week and instead read out a summary of his evidence. According to this summary, Popovic “never spoke to President Karadzic about the execution of prisoners of war. He has no knowledge of any report that would indicate President Karadzic was informed of the executions and he has never heard of anyone who suggested that President Karadzic was informed about it or had approved it.”
Karadzic, as supreme commander of the Bosnian Serb army and president of the civilian government, is charged with genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation and forcible transfer in relation to the Srebrenica massacre.
During the lengthy and often combative cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Julian Nicholls accused Popovic of fabricating the entirety of his evidence in order to help with his own appeal. The witness denied this, and repeatedly maintained that he played no role in the July 1995 executions.
Nicholls asked the witness to explain a confidential military report dated July 12, 1995 that originated from him and was sent to the army’s main staff, the intelligence and security sector, and the security command of the Drina Corps.
According to Nicholls, this report stated that “about 5,000 women and children [have been] evacuated so far. We are separating men from 17 to 60 years of age and we are not transporting them. We have 70 of them so far and the security organs… are working with them.”
Nicholls drew particular attention to one sentence which stated, “In the course of the day, our forces and the MUP [interior ministry police] did not have any heavy exchange of fire with balijas.”
“Balija” is a derogatory term that refers to Bosnian Muslims.
“This is you reporting on your work separating men, people you refer to as ‘balijas’, and not transporting them, right?” Nicholls asked.
“How can I report on something that I did not do?” Popovic retorted. He insisted that he did not send the report, that he did not even see the document until after his own trial, and that he did not take part in separating men from the women and children that day.
Nicholls pointed out that in his statement, Popovic said that he read the report at the Drina Corps command the following day.
“So when you wrote this statement, you thought that was the best option to deal with this document, but you’re sitting here today and you forgot you said that, and decided it was best to say you didn’t see it until after the trial, right?” Nicholls said.
“No, no, Mr Nicholls, not at all. Quite simply, I got carried away because you irritated me… and I got a bit lost. It is correct that the next day when I came up there, I read this document. Once again, I apologise… quite simply, I got lost,” Popovic said.
The witness claimed that Momir Nikolic, assistant commander for security and intelligence in the Bratunac Brigade and a subordinate of his, sent out the report in his name without informing him.
“So you’re sitting in an office with papers spread out around you on the floor, and somebody in the building, without your knowledge, sends out a report under your name without telling you. They are trying to frame you, thinking there might be a trial in 2008,” Nicholls said.
“Very pretentious. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I thought,” the witness replied. “Quite simply, I was working on the job that I thought should have been done… and someone probably signed for me, but I would like to see the original to see whose signature is there. Because only the name and surname remain once it’s sent for encoding. Because without a signature it cannot be sent out for encryption.”
Nicholls said that “it’s our position that you wrote it and it described what you were doing.” He then referred to other instances where Popovic used the term “balija” in his reports.
“It’s evident that sometimes, very rarely, I used it, but that doesn’t mean I used it on July 12. That’s it,” Popovic replied.
Nicholls then moved on to the events of July 13, when Popovic said he came across a football field in Nova Kasaba containing 800 prisoners. Nicholls noted that according to another defence witness who testified in the Karadzic case, Popovic “prevented pictures from being taken of captured Muslims” that day.
“One way or another… you destroyed the film. Do you remember that? Or is it another void?” Nicholls asked.
“I don’t, but if I did that, and if he says that I did that, then maybe it is the truth but I don’t remember that,” Popovic said.
“Now why would you destroy that film? You said, ‘Maybe I did,’” Nicholls continued.
Popovic said that from what he remembered, the Bosnian Serb army’s commander Ratko Mladic had already ordered that no filming be allowed in order to provide better security for the prisoners.
“Perhaps that would be the only explanation,” Popovic continued.
“Think about this possible explanation – you knew all those men were going to be killed and you didn’t want photos of them floating around, so you destroyed the evidence that those men who happened to be photographed were alive at the field,” Nicholls said.
“On the basis of what would I know that at that moment? How can you take things so out of context?” Popovic asked.
“Because you were part of a murder operation on that day, and you were working to make sure every captured Muslim male was murdered. That’s how you would know it,” Nicholls responded, his voice rising.
Popovic said he did not participate in any killings, and that “there were no killings” on July 13.
“You’re saying that on July 13 there were no killings of prisoners? You mean that?” Nicholls asked incredulously.
“Not that I know of. I’m saying this emphatically under oath. Not that I know of. As far as I know, that day there were none,” Popovic said.
Nicholls then reminded the witness that he had already admitted that later that same day, July 13, he had passed by the Kravica warehouse and seen “several dozen bodies on the ground in front of the hangar”.
Judges in the Popovic case found that “at least” 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men were killed at the Kravica facility that day.
“That’s another execution site that you happened to be at, in addition to Pilica and the other ones we’ll get to,” Nicholls remarked.
“I was not there at the time of the killing. I was returning that evening, stopped by, and saw those people executed. I asked what happened; I was told there was an incident,” Popovic said. “Those were not executions I was present at.”
Nicholls asked the witness how there could have been no killings that day when he personally saw bodies at Kravica.
“Are you now claiming that those bodies weren’t victims of killings? That’s the only way your story is even halfway coherent,” the lawyer said.
“I’m not claiming those were not the bodies of victims. Those were men that were killed in that incident. I saw them when I was passing by. I thought you were saying that at the [football] pitch, when I was passing by near Kasaba, that I knew executions had taken place. That’s what I thought you meant,” Popovic said.
“You said after that that there were no executions on the 13th. At Kravica you know there were executions on the 13th,” Nicholls reiterated.
Popovic replied by saying he meant executions by the football field, and that “mistakes happen because you put things out of context. I mean, you are practically asking me to make a mistake.”
Nicholls said the police units guarding the Kravica warehouse that day had been “re-subordinated” to the army. He asked why Popovic – as chief of security in the Drina Corps – did not make an effort to find out what had happened.
“How could I investigate? That’s supposed to be done by the security organ of that unit. I tried to find out what happened and [forces on the spot] didn’t want to tell me, and that was it – I went on my way,” Popovic said.
“What did you do to check whether there were any survivors, or if any men laying on the floor in the warehouse might still have been alive and in great pain? Did you say, ‘I think we should send some ambulances to Kravica, there’s a whole bunch of people who’ve been shot and there might be some who are alive?’” Nicholls asked.
“I was watching from the road, and what I saw, I described to you. When I came to the command, I tried to find out what happened, and nobody was able to tell me more than I already knew, and I didn’t take the steps that you suggest. I thought, after all, that it was the responsibility of the person in command of that unit. I cannot interfere with the command of that unit,” Popovic said.
Later, Nicholls asked the witness about prisoners being packed into a school in Orahovac on July 14 prior to being taken away and shot.
Contrary to evidence from survivors who said it was “suffocatingly” hot and crowded in the school, and that prisoners were not given any water, Popovic said it was not “so crowded” there, and prisoners could walk up to a desk and get water whenever they wanted.
“You keep saying that you have no reason to lie. You’ve been sentenced to life in prison. You don’t have much to lose by coming here and coming up with a story that puts you as an innocent bystander at virtually every execution site,” Nicholls contended.
“That’s exactly why I wanted to come here. Things aren’t quite so black and white,” Popovic said.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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