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

Key Srebrenica Witness Apologises for Lies

Defence lawyer presses Bosnian Serb officer on admission that he lied.
By Chris Stephen

A key Srebrenica prosecution witness apologised to the Hague tribunal this week about lying in a statement to prosecutors.


Momir Nikolic, a former Bosnian Serb army intelligence officer, made history after he gave evidence against his former colleagues about the Srebrenica killings in a plea agreement deal with prosecutors, reached in May this year.


In exchange for pleading guilty to crimes against humanity, and for cooperating, prosecutors are pressing for a lighter sentence limited to 20 years.


Nikolic, 48, originally gave a signed statement telling prosecutors he ordered the worst massacre at Srebrenica – the slaughter of 1,000 unarmed Muslims at a warehouse in Kravica, as well as a second execution at Sandici.


“I did not tell the truth when I said that,” he told the court on September 29. “Afterwards I said I had made a mistake, I had lied.”


“I apologise. All I can do is confess and say that the discussion about the crime is a very difficult situation to be in.”


He admitted to the lies on May 6, in a statement to prosecutors which was released to the public last week. He also said he had lied about a second claim that he had been the man in a photograph shown him by prosecutors. His guilty plea statement to the court, also dated May 6, did not contain these untruths.


Nikolic is now giving evidence against Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, two fellow Bosnian Serb officers accused of crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and customs of war.


The issue of Nikolic’s earlier lies came up under cross-examination from the defence this week.


”You took some information which you knew to be true, and incorporated that information into the falsehood in order to give your story more believability?” said defence lawyer Michael Kavanas.


“No,” said Nikolic.


In his May statement to prosecutors, Nikolic said, “I initially falsely stated that I was the person in a photograph depicting a soldier in the area of Sandici, when in truth I was not the person depicted in the photograph.”


“In addition I initially falsely stated to the prosecution that I had ordered executions at Sandici and the Kravica warehouse on July 13, 1995, when in fact I had not issued such orders.”


“Shortly after making these false statements – and as discussions with the prosecution continued – I voluntarily informed my lawyers and the prosecution that I had made false statements,” said his statement.


“I think we should call it for what it is, a bald-faced lie,” said Karnavas, an American lawyer.


In the original statement, Nikolic said he had seen former army officer Ljubomir Borovcanin at the Kravica warehouse.


“You needed to give him [the prosecutor] something he did not have, right?” said Karnavas. “You wanted to limit your time of imprisonment to 20 years, that was part of the arrangement, yes? Quid pro quo?”


“I’m still a little bit confused,” continued Karnavas. “How is it that you thought by admitting to one of the most horrendous executions in this area, that this would help you in getting the kind of sentence that you are hoping and praying for?”


“I wanted the agreement to succeed,” said the witness.


Karnavas pressed on, “Did you think that by falsely admitting to having ordered this execution that you were solving a question-mark in the prosecutor’s case as to who had ordered that murder?”


Nikolic told the court that although he was not present, he was sure Borovcanin had been there.


“You implicated Borovcanin in your falsehood in order to make your story move convincing so that the prosecutor would buy it?” said Karnavas. “You needed to give him [the prosecutor] some more facts to sweeten the deal, that’s why you provided false information about Kravica?”


Nikolic went on to deny that anyone but himself had been involved in the fabrication.


“Your lawyers had a laundry list of factors that the prosecutor was expected to agree to?” asked the lawyer.


“The prosecution did not exert any influence on me,” replied Nikolic. “What I did is my own mistake.”


He told the court that although he was a captain, he would sometimes claim to be a major when attending meetings with United Nations troops in the Srebrenica area.


“You stated that part of your profession required you to use deceptive measures as an intelligence officer,” said Karnavas.


“Do you understand how critically important it is for you to tell the whole truth? That had been part of the agreement that you had reached with the prosecutors – that you would testify truthfully and tell the whole truth?”


Karnavas then asked the witness about his past employment record. Nikolic said he had left the army and became an official with a local company, but was made redundant when it was privatised.


“Do you wish to supplement any more regarding that?” said Karnavas, who showed the court a document in which Nikolic’s employer declared that Nikolic’s employment was terminated on November 25, 2000.


“What I’m interested to know is why you have failed to inform us that you were fired. Not that after privatisation you were unemployed but that you were fired.”


“That is absolutely not true,” said Nikolic.


The case continues.


Chris Stephen is IWPR’s tribunal project manager.