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

Kovacevic's Trial Begins

Tribunal Update 84: Last Week in The Hague (6-11 July 1998)

It is hoped that it will prevent potential revisionists a few years or decades from now from staking claims that Srebrenica, Ahmici, or Omarska never happened, that Vukovar was razed by its defenders (who then committed collective suicide at Ovcara), or that the besieged citizens of Sarajevo shelled themselves (a theory that has already been heard).

Last week's opening of the trial of Milan Kovacevic, nonetheless, saw a failure by the Tribunal to prevent another kind of revisionism: the rewriting of history of World War II in Yugoslavia.

The judges and the prosecutors simply allowed the Tribunal to become a venue for a rehabilitation of the Chetnik movement and its leader, General Draza Mihajlovic.

The indictment of Kovacevic, the former vice-president of the Crisis Staff of the municipality of Prijedor, is based on events that took place in that town in northwestern Bosnia and its infamous camps, Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje.

However from the very beginning of the trial, one got the impression that two members of Kovacevic's defense team - Chicago-based lawyers of Serbian origin, Dusan Vucicevic and John Van (actually Jovan Savanovic) - are more interested in clearing the name of General Mihajlovic than in defending their client from charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. And they have succeeded to a considerable extent in fulfilling their apparent goal - at least for now.

At the end of the cross-examination of prosecution witness Hanne Sophi Greve, a judge from Norway (who was in charge of the 1993-1994 United Nations Commission of Experts' investigation into Prijedor events), Kovacevic's defense submitted two documents referring to General Mihajlovic.

The defense made the move under the pretext of disputing Greve's credibility and expertise. The first document was an article published by the American weekly "Time" on 25 May 1942, glorifying the Chetnik movement and its leader as the main ally of the anti-Hitler coalition in the occupied Balkans.

The second document was a March 1948 statement by U.S. President Harry Truman on the occasion of the awarding of the Legion of Merit to General Mihajlovic. Truman praised the general's contribution to the "final ally victory" and the large number of American pilots who were rescued by Mihajlovic's units after being shot down during the war over the areas under Chetnik control.

Claiming that these documents unambiguously show that General Mihajlovic was an ally of the anti-Hitler coalition, Vucicevic asked the prosecution witness to confirm that the Chetnik leader was executed as a Nazi collaborator after the war, i.e. unjustly (the defense lawyer failed to mention that Mihajlovic was executed following a trial). Greve conceded that was true, with a caveat that Mihajlovic was a "controversial person."

Perhaps impressed by the grand American names of "Time" and Truman, prosecutors Brenda Hollis and Michael Keegan - both from the United States - made no objections to such a revision of World War II history.

Judges Richard May (Great Britain), Antonio Cassese (Italy), and Florence Mumba (Zambia), acted in a similar way, with only Presiding Judge May noting that the events of five decades ago are hardly going to help the trial chamber understand what happened in Prijedor five years ago.

The only person to express some unease with this episode in his client's trial was a third member of the defense team, American lawyer Anthony D'Amato. As the defense of the "character and deeds" of General Mihajlovic proceeded before the court, he held his head in near desperation, as if he had realized that a direct link between Kovacevic and the Chetnik movement could do more harm than help the case of the accused during the further course of the trial.

Many crimes in Prijedor and its camps are attributed precisely to paramilitary "Chetnik" formations, which came from Serbia and presented themselves as the successors to General Mihajlovic and his World War II movement.

Vucicevic and Van (Savanovic), however, reveled in their success at the end of the cross-examination, revealing that they had not come from Chicago to The Hague in order to defend Kovacevic but to correct the "historical injustice" done to their hero.

This was the most significant and the only unexpected incident in the first week of Kovacevic's trial. The rest followed a predictable pattern.

First, the accused Kovacevic pleaded "not guilty" to 14 charges that have been amended to the original indictment in the meantime. Besides the single charge (complicity to commit genocide) from the initial indictment (issued and sealed on 13 March 1997), the new indictment charges Kovacevic with: genocide (one count); crimes against humanity (four counts); violations of the laws or customs of war (four counts); and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (five counts).

These counts "cover" the alleged criminal conduct of the accused in the "extermination, willful killing, and murder" of the non-Serb population in the Prijedor municipality; its "persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds"; "torture, cruel treatment, and willfully causing great suffering"; "deportation and unlawful transfer" and "wanton destruction or devastation of villages, extensive destruction, and appropriation of property."

As expected, following Kovacevic's repeated initial appearance, the trial chamber turned down the defendant's motion to strike all counts of the indictment based on Article 2 of the Tribunal's Statute (grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions). The defense had referred to the decision of Trial Chamber II (by a 2:1 vote) in the Tadic case that Article 2 is "inapplicable," because the conflict in the Prijedor region was of internal rather than international character.

The prosecutor, however, has appealed against such characterization of the war, and it is still being considered by the Appeals Chamber.

Moreover, at the beginning of the Kovacevic trial, Presiding Judge May turned down the defense's request with the explanation that the decision of the judges in the Tadic case is not binding for the trial chamber dealing with the Kovacevic case. It is therefore up to the prosecutor to prove that the conflict involving Kovacevic's alleged crimes was international in character, and that its victims - Bosniak and Croat inhabitants of the municipality of Prijedor - were protected persons under the Geneva Conventions.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Hollis announced that she will prove the international character of the conflict. In connection, she brought up the role of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) in arming local Serbs and attacking non-Serb areas in Bosnia, as well as Serbia's role in providing logistical and financial support to Bosnian Serbs and in sending paramilitary formations across the Drina river.

Concerning Kovacevic himself, the prosecutor claimed that "as a member of the ruling Serb elite in Prijedor, a leading member of the SDS, the president of the Executive Committee and as de facto vice-president of the Crisis Staff, which was the highest decision-making body in the municipality, the accused played a key role in putting in place and carrying out a series of acts to achieve what has been termed 'ethnic cleansing' in Prijedor."

In order to achieve that goal, the prosecutor continued, "the accused, as one of and acting with other Bosnian Serb leaders in Prijedor, subjected the non-Serb population to a wide range of criminal acts, including the destruction of the Muslim and Croat population - based on their ethnic, political, or religious identity - by killing, beating, torture, and rape, their detention in inhumane conditions, forcible transfer and deportation."

"These crimes," according to the prosecutor, "resulted in the near destruction - if not the actual destruction - of the Bosnian Muslims [Bosniaks] and Bosnian Croats as viable groups within the Prijedor municipality."

The evidence, she said, will prove that the accused "acted with the intent to commit genocide ... and gave assistance, support, encouragement to, and otherwise aided and abetted, those who killed, tortured, raped, beat and forcibly displaced the majority of the non-Serb population of Prijedor."

Finally, Brenda Hollis concluded, "the accused in this case was, and is, a medical doctor. History has shown us, as will the evidence in this case, that his profession did not prevent the accused from participating in crimes that took place in the Municipality of Prijedor during the period from 24 April to 31 December 1992."

The lead defense lawyer, Dusan Vucicevic, held on to the right to make his opening statement only after the presentation of evidence by the prosecution. But he then only briefly commented on the prosecutor's opening statement.

According to Vucicevic, the trial will show that "in almost each and every one of the allegations that directly reflect on my client, there is a reasonable explanation." The prosecutor's evidence, Vucicevic claimed, "does not establish a plan on the first count of the indictment, that the authorities of the Republika Srpska planned to commit genocide."

As a matter of fact, the defense claimed that "the statements [presented by the prosecution] clearly reveal that there was no such plan." Vucicevic said the defense would prove that the accusations against Kovacevic were "unfounded" by "referring to common sense."

The lawyer also complained that he did not know how to defend Kovacevic from the accusations of being an advocate of a "greater Serbia," because, he said, in a rather bizarre and uninformed comparison, "if my client is guilty of that, maybe the people of Great Britain might be guilty, because they live in Great Britain!"

The events in Prijedor in the critical period of 1992, which are covered by the indictment against Kovacevic and an unknown number of other political and military leaders of the municipality (whose names are still under the Tribunal's seal), were dealt with in detail in the report by the UN Commission of Experts (known as the "Bassiouni Commission").

After completing its work in the summer of 1994, the commission handed over the evidence it collected during its investigation of reports of grave violations of international humanitarian law on the territory of the former Yugoslavia to the Tribunal's Office of the Prosecutor.

A significant part of that material explicitly concerned the Prijedor municipality, which made it possible for the prosecution to initiate its own "Prijedor investigation," which has thus far resulted in four indictments (Tadic, Kovacevic, Omarska, and Keraterm). The material also contributed to the first, so-called "general indictment" against Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Most of the Tribunal's genocide indictments have to do precisely with the events in Prijedor and its camps. Apart from Karadzic and Mladic, also accused of genocide are Zeljko Meakic and Dusko Sikirica, respectively the commanders of the camps Omarska and Keraterm, as well as an unknown number of civilian, police, and military leaders of Prijedor.

Kovacevic is the only one to have been brought to trial so far. He was seized on 10 July 1997 in the first arrest operation carried out by the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR).

The first prosecution witness in Kovacevic's trial was the already mentioned Norwegian judge, Hanne Sophi Greve, who headed the "Prijedor investigation" of the UN Commission of Experts. Since she had already testified extensively in the trial of Dusko Tadic (20-22 May 1996), a transcript of that testimony was submitted to the court, while Prosecutor Brenda Hollis used her presence to introduce some 30 prosecution exhibits.

The greater part of the exhibits consisted of reports by various international organizations (International Committee of the Red Cross, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Community's Monitoring Mission) that were active in the region of Prijedor at the time of the alleged crimes, but some ten articles from the war-time issues of the Prijedor paper "Kozarski vjesnik" also made it to the prosecution's evidence material. Prijedor's Serbian authorities probably have not left an abundance of written evidence on their alleged crimes, but plenty of traces of their "war feats" can be found in old issues of the local paper.

The local political, military, and police leaders have used the pages of the local paper, which they controlled, to glorify each and every contribution of their own to the "Serb cause." In doing so, the back issues of the paper offer an abundance of statements that - at least at first glance - confirm the prosecution's arguments about the organized and systematic character of ethnic cleansing and the high level of coordination that was achieved in the process among civilian, military, and police structures of the so-called Serb Municipality of Prijedor.

Ultimately, the result of that process was expressed with statistical data, also published in "Kozarski vjesnik" and presented to the court last week. According to the 1991 census, some 50,000 Muslims and a little over 6,000 Croats lived in Prijedor. Two years later, citing the municipal census commission, "Kozarski vjesnik" reported that there were only 6,000 Muslims and some 3,000 Catholics left in Prijedor and nearby villages.

On the other hand, the percentage of the Orthodox (Serb) population had risen from 42.5 percent in 1991 to 96.3 percent in 1993. According to the prosecutor, those demographic changes cannot be explained in any other way but by genocide against the non-Serb population.

That, however, was not the end to the ethnic cleansing of Prijedor. According to Mevludin Sejmenovic, the second witness in the Kovacevic trial last week, there are only 400 Bosniaks left in the town today.

Sejmenovic, the leader of Prijedor's Bosniak community, was also detained for a period of time at the Omarska camp for being a deputy president of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

In the first part of his testimony, Sejmenovic talked about the general situation in Prijedor on the eve of the "military coup" on 29 April 1992, when the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) took over all power in the town and municipality - with the help of the JNA, police, and paramilitary formations from Serbia.

As the trial continues this week, Sejmenovic will talk about the events and conditions in the Omarska camp.

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