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Kordic and Cerkez Trial - Lawyers focus on 'chain of command' during Lasva Valley offensive

Tribunal Update 199 Last Week in The Hague (November 13-18, 2000)

Palavra was cross-examined by prosecution and defence counsels, each eager to reinforce their respective versions of the roles of defendants Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez during the April 1993 offensive.

Kordic, a former political leader of the Bosnian Croats, and Cerkez, former commander of the HVO Vitez brigade, are accused of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention.

The prosecution is especially keen to prove the defendants' responsibility for the Ahmici massacre of April 16, 1993, which left over 100 Muslim civilians dead and every Muslim house in the village destroyed.

Several witnesses and documents presented at this and other trials have claimed or indicated military police personnel were responsible for the Ahmici atrocities.

Palavra had been appointed military police commander three and half months after the Ahmici massacre. During a previous appearance at the tribunal - as a witness in the trial of Tihomir Blaskic, HVO commander in central Bosnia at the time of the Lasva valley offensive - Palavra said his job had been to bring the military police units to order under Blaskic's direct command. (See Tribunal Update No. 108)

The prosecution focused on the Ahmici crimes and questioned Palavra on the operation of the HVO security services in central Bosnia at the time. When the prosecution asked about various HVO agents thought to be operating in the area, the witness said he only recognised a few of the names. Palavra was also unable to clarify what had happened at Ahmici.

He said he used to attend daily briefings at Blaskic's headquarters along with all the members of the HVO command in central Bosnia, but that no one had raised the Ahmici issue at these meetings.

Prosecutor Kenneth Scott expressed surprise the witness, as a senior military police commander, had not sought to unearth information regarding such a serious crime.

"You are right. I did not investigate. I couldn't," replied Palavra.

The prosecution pointed out, however, that Anto Sliskovic, commander of the HVO security services in the area, also attended the daily briefings. Blaskic had appointed Sliskovic to investigate the Ahmici attack.

In September, however, Sliskovic was arrested in Croatia and charged with direct involvement in the Ahmici crimes. The Croatian police also tried to arrest Palavra's predecessor at the HVO military police, Pasko Ljubicic, but he escaped.

When Palavra had taken command of the military police, Ljubicic had been promoted to a more senior position within the HVO in central Bosnia.

The defence for their part tried to use Palavra's testimony to reinforce their claims that neither Kordic nor Cerkez exercised sufficient authority over the military police in central Bosnia for them to be held responsible for the Ahmici crimes.

When asked whether Kordic had authority over the military police, Palavra said he had never received an order from him and stressed that "as far as he knew" the defendant did not have the power to issue such orders.

Likewise defence lawyers for Cerkez asked Palavra if the chain of command over military police units at the time was clearly defined.

The defence argues Cerkez did not exercise control over military police units in the Vitez area. Palavra said that only after Blaskic issued an order clearly outlining the chain of command in August 1993 did things become clear within the military police.