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

Kovacevic trial

Tribunal Update 85: Last Week in The Hague (13-15 July 1998)

First, in the summer of 1996, he testified in the trial of Dusko Tadic, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment (pending an appeal) for crimes against Muslim and Croat civilians in the region of Prijedor, in north-western Bosnia.

Then, in April and May this year (see Updates 73 and 76), he testified in the on-going trial of Croat General Tihomir Blaskic, accused of crimes which the Bosnian Croats forces committed against the Muslim population of the Lasva Valley in central Bosnia, allegedly under his control and command. Now Vulliamy is a prosecution witness in the trial of Dr Milan Kovacevic, who stands accused of alleged genocide and other war crimes against the non-Serb population of the region of Prijedor from where some 50,000 Muslims and Croats were "ethnically cleansed"--killed or persecuted--in 1992-1993.

Vulliamy did not know Dusko Tadic and Tihomir Blaskic personally and thus testified in their trial as an expert-witness for the prosecution, describing the wider context of the war in which the crimes they were charged with had been committed. Vulliamy had, however, had an opportunity to meet Kovacevic on two occasions once during and once immediately after the war, consequently he was summoned before the Tribunal last week as a fact-witness. As those two meetings might be of great relevance for the case, they understandably took up most time, both in the direct and in the marathon cross-examination of Vulliamy.

The journalist first met Kovacevic in Prijedor on 5 August, 1992. Vulliamy had travelled there (together with his colleague, Penny Marshall and the crew of Britain's ITN) upon the personal invitation of Dr Radovan Karadzic, then political leader of the Bosnian Serbs. This was the time when the first reports about Omarska and other "concentration camps" on the territory under the control of the Bosnian Serbs began appearing in the Western media.

These reports had angered Karadzic so much that, in letters to the editors of The Guardian and ITN, he challenged, without caution, those two editorial offices to send their journalists to Bosnia so that they could assure themselves on the spot that these were the fabrications of "Muslim propaganda".

The Guardian and ITN accepted Karadzic's challenge and Vulliamy and Marshall soon found themselves in Prijedor. Here they were met by the highest representatives of the local Serb civilian, police and military authorities. Among these was Kovacevic, president of the Executive Council of the self-proclaimed Serb municipality of Prijedor and the vice-president of its Crisis headquarters (precisely in which office he is charged with command responsibility for the Prijedor genocide). According to Vulliamy's testimony, Kovacevic was a key speaker in the meeting. Their hosts tried to persuade the British journalists to visit the Manjaca camp which, they described as "much more interesting" since "prisoners-of-war" were there, instead of Omarska (which they presented as a "transit centre" for civilians).

According to Vulliamy, Kovacevic was "in charge", i.e. "in control of the talking: opening the proceedings and chairing the meeting...". At one point, Vulliamy claims, with one move of his hand, Kovacevic silenced the person who was nominally superior to him, president of the municipality Stakic, who had tried to join in the conversation. After the journalists refused to change their plan and go to Manjaca, the local military commander, Colonel Arsic, told them he could not give them permission to visit Omarska, and, pointing at Stakic and Kovacevic, said, "They are in charge for Omarska."

Left without a choice, the hosts had to take "Karadzic's guests" to Omarska, but tried hard during the strictly "guided tour" to prevent them from seeing and filming more than was allowed. All they saw and filmed (which was shown in August 1992 on television across the world and described in all Western papers), were the inmates, who were being taken in groups of 30 people from the hangar and lined up, and led, running, into the "canteen" where--with bewildered gazes and obviously starved--they gulped down some watery bean soup and bread.

The journalists were not allowed to talk with them (and were actually told that the inmates did not wish to speak to them) but--Vulliamy said before the court--"their eyes and physical appearance were telling that which they were not allowed to say to us". One of the inmates, Vulliamy claims, managed to tell them, "I do not want to tell you any lies, but I can't tell you a truth." Vulliamy and Marshall insisted they should be let inside the hangar to see the sleeping quarters, but the chief of the Prijedor police, Simor Drljaca (who was killed on 10 July 1997 by SAS members when he resisted arrest), and camp commander Zeljko Meakic (also charged with genocide) refused this categorically, and the guided tour of Omarska ended with a fierce quarrel between the hosts and their guests.

The hosts were, however, less successful in Trnopolje--the next camp where "Karadzic's guests" were taken. Vulliamy and Marshall managed to slip away for a moment, to visit the camp complex without escort and talk with the inmates. Many of them--especially those in the poorest physical condition--told the journalists that they had been brought to Trnopolje from Omarska and Keraterm and described the massacres and other horrors taking place in those camps. A well-known image of walking human skeletons behind barbed wire, which in August 1992 shocked the conscience of humanity, effectively kick-starting the mechanism that would several months later lead to the founding of the International Criminal Court for former Yugoslavia, was shot in Trnopolje. This footage was discussed intensively during Vulliamy's cross-examination by Kovacevic's defence. Vulliamy's second meeting with Kovacevic might have even more relevance for the case. It took place after the war, in February 1996, when Vulliamy returned to Bosnia, to describe in a series of articles for The Guardian what had happened to the protagonists of the events about which he wrote in 1992-1993.

One of the pieces in the series is dedicated to Prijedor, and one of Vulliamy's interlocutors was Kovacevic. They met in his office at Prijedor hospital--Kovacevic was now hospital director, having left politics because in it he saw "many evil things" about which he did not wish to talk, since it was his "personal secret". The conversation, in which Roger Cohen of The New York Times had also taken part, was very long, and Kovacevic was "very interested in the topic and very sincere". He explained that a civil and religious war was waged in Bosnia, particularly insisting on its "psychological dimension", which, as he said, could only be explained by psychiatrists. Omarska, he continued, "was planned as a reception centre...but it turned into something else". The only way in which he, Kovacevic, could explain that "loss of control" is that all of them were affected by "collective madness". When asked whether he was a part of that, Kovacevic replied, as Vulliamy wrote and repeated before the court, "If someone was to acquit me, saying that I was not part of this collective madness... then I would have to admit that would not be true."

Vulliamy further claims that Kovacevic spoke on that occasion about the connection between the Jasenovac camp in the fascist Independent State of Croatia 1941-45 (where Kovacevic was taken as a child) and the Omarska camp, for which he was responsible in 1992, according to the indictment. He explained how a "thin thread" linked those two camps, as, according to him, there were Muslim soldiers among the Ustashi in Jasenovac. To the objection that Jasenovac was run by the Croats, and not by the Muslims, Kovacevic replied with the Serb folk proverb "The one who was bitten by a snake, now fears a lizard as well" (or, "Once bitten, twice shy"), from which Vulliamy concluded that half a century after they were "bitten by a Croat snake" in Jasenovac the Serbs now fear "Muslim lizards" as well. Kovacevic, however, rejected all other parallels between the two camps. In Omarska, he claimed, no more than 100 people were killed, while Jasenovac was a "factory of death". When Vulliamy and Cohen expressed doubt as to the number of victims of Omarska, Kovacevic said that he was taking into account only those who were killed and not those who died in the camp.

Whether rightfully or not, the defence considers Vulliamy to be "most responsible" for the indictment against Kovacevic and believes he is a key prosecution witness in the trial. As a result, one of the members of the defence team, an American lawyer of Serb origin John (Jovan) Ostojic, worked especially hard in preparation for the cross-examination. He had at his disposal an abundance of material, since Vulliamy had already written and published everything he had seen in Bosnia and said before the court in The Guardian, The Observer, and in his book Seasons in Hell. Apart from that, the defence had at its disposal the statements that the witness gave to the prosecution in the Kovacevic and Blaskic cases, as well as a transcript of Vulliamy's testimony in the Tadic case.

It turned out, however, that all this was not enough, so the defence requested at the beginning of the cross-examination to be allowed to see the stenographic notes which Vulliamy took during the interview with Kovacevic, which are in the prosecutor's possession. After Vulliamy "deciphered" his notes to them on Wednesday evening, in the presence of the prosecutor, the defence counsels claimed before the court the next day that the witness "hushed up" some things, and "added" others, and that this changes "the tone of the statement of the accused", i.e. his interview of February 1996. Pointing out that their client's future depended on that, the defence demanded that they be allowed to view all Vulliamy's notes about his visits to the camps, trips to them and out of them, then all his notes from the meeting in Prijedor in August 1992; the notes of the conversations with other political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, as well as all other notes that could be relevant for his testimony against Kovacevic. Prosecutor Michael Keegan fiercely protested that the defence "was digging in the private notes of the witness", and the hearing was closed on Thursday morning so that things which were relevant for the defence could be separated from private and confidential material.

Continuing the cross-examination, the defence announced that they would disclose numerous "major inconsistencies" between Vulliamy's testimony and the records in his contemporaneous shorthand notes and typed notes. But they were neither overly convincing or successful in this: the biggest "inconsistency" they pointed to concerns the sentence in which Kovacevic admits that he was part of a "collective madness". According to Vulliamy's notes, Kovacevic said: "If someone was to say that I was not part of this collective madness... then I would have to admit that would not be true." While he was quoted before the court by Vulliamy as saying: "If someone acquitted me..." Other "inconsistencies" appeared even less important: whether Kovacevic had drunk six, seven, or eight glasses of home-made brandy during the interview; whether he mentioned "collective madness" himself or the phrase was part of the journalist's question; whether, while talking about the wind that "cleaned everything in front of it" he used the Serbian world for "wind tunnel" or "hurricane"; whether Kovacevic "chaired" the meeting on 5 August 1992 in Prijedor or was only one of the "participants"; whether Kovacevic had "silenced" municipality president Stakic in that meeting, or was only trying to finish the speech he had begun and which Stakic tried to interrupt.

Trying to highlight the "inconsistency" in Vulliamy's interpretation of the proverb about the snake and the lizard, the defence counsel at one point asked Vulliamy whether he had "studied Shakespeare". He replied that he had not "studied" Shakespeare, but had read some of his plays. Ostojic then asked him if he was familiar with the famous line: "First, all lawyers should be killed." After a short exchange and a comment by Ostojic that the line was either form Hamlet or Macbeth, presiding Judge Richard May intervened: "I will not allow this line of questioning to go any further. And, by the way, it's Richard II."

A separate part of the cross-examination concerned the Trnopolje camp and the walking skeletons filmed by the ITN cameras behind the barbed wire, described in Vulliamy's articles and his book. The defence quoted the sentence from the book: "One more horrible sight--the camp surrounded by the barbed wire," asking the witness to say whether the entire camp was surrounded by such wire, and whether--on the ITN footage--Vulliamy and Marshall were on the inside of the wire, and the inmates on the outside. On this token, Ostojic claimed that Trnopolje was not surrounded by barbed wire, that such wire could be found only in one part of the centre of the camp, and that the British journalists "put those people behind the wire on purpose".

Gladly responding to the judge's invitation to explain this, Vulliamy said that at issue was the theory put forward by Thomas Deischmann who was a defence witness in the Tadic case. In essence, Deischmann claimed that he and Penny Marshall "put those people there" (so that it would look that they are behind the barbed wire). To the judge's objection that "he was not interested in Deischmann, but in what you saw", Vulliamy said that, on the return from Omarska, they "saw that incredible scene" (the skeletons behind the barbed wire) and that they stopped in order to talk with those people--through the barbed wire which was "partly old, partly new", and which continued with another kind of net-like wire.

The prosecution returned to the subject of the fence during their reexamination of Vulliamy, and asked the witness to comment on the video footage which shows the wire from various angles. The defence will doubtless try--during its presentation of evidence--to revive Deischmann's theory. The main line of Kovacevic's defence during the cross-examination was to point to a kind of "conspiracy" between prosecutor Michael Keegan and his witness Vulliamy. Numberless times Ostojic returned to the question of when and where Keegan and Vulliamy held their meetings (even demanding the address of The Guardian's Washington bureau, where they met for the first time in 1995); whether Keegan, while "engaging" Vulliamy as a witness in the Tadic case "explained to him what he should prove" (the so-called pattern of systematic and widespread attack against civilians); what he gave to and received from the prosecutor; whether they corresponded in the meantime; and finally whether the prosecution had "promised money for his testimony".

With this last question, Ostojic prompted an astounding reaction from presiding Judge May: "You are not suggesting that the prosecution wanted to influence this witness with money?" Ostojic withdrew that question, but he continued to suggest that Vulliamy did not return to Prijedor and talk with Kovacevic in February 1996 solely for professional reasons, and asked the witness whether his wish to interview the accused emerged "after the first or after the second meeting with Keegan?" At the very end of this exhausting cross-examination, which lasted two full working days, Ostojic accused Vulliamy of having "attached [his] aide-memoir to the indictment", referring to the re-typed stenographic notes of the interview with Kovacevic which Vulliamy had submitted to the prosecutor. "I did not attach anything", the witness responded, to which Ostojic angrily added, "You may think you did not, but you did!" One more intervention by Judge May ensued.

There were actually surprisingly few such interventions, even though on several occasions prosecutor Keegan objected to the manner in which the cross-examination was conducted, claiming that the defence "is leading the witness by presenting untrue facts". The same Chamber had a week earlier, during the cross-examination of Dr Sophi Greve (see Update 84), interrupted Kovacevic's lead counsel Dusan Vucicevic numerous times, not allowing him repetition or irrelevant questions. The tolerance that the judges demonstrated during Vulliamy's cross-examination might be a bad omen for the defence and suggest that the Chamber is giving great importance to his statements and that it is allowing the defence more scope than is usual to see if it can discredit the witness and dispute his statements. If the defence fails in this, so much worse for the defence: it cannot complain that that judges did not give it a chance to try.

The trial of Dr Kovacevic continues on 21 September 1998.

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