Nedeljko Prstojevic - the former mayor of the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidza who served as president of the local crisis staff in 1992 and the president of the municipal board of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, the previous year - was appearing as a prosecution witness in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president and SDS main board member Momcilo Krajisnik. But his testimony often seemed to support the accused, rather than the prosecutors’ case.
Krajisnik is facing two charges of genocide or complicity to commit genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and one count of violations of the laws and customs of war. The indictment alleges that he was involved in a joint criminal enterprise designed to remove non-Serbs from parts of Bosnian territory through murder, mass deportation and persecution.
Hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were expelled from large swathes of Serb-controlled Bosnia in the first months of the war in 1992. The Krajisnik trial has already heard numerous stories from survivors of such expulsions from various Bosnian municipalities.
However, the witness insisted this week that no such deportation policy was in place in his municipality.
The court was presented with a transcript of an intercepted telephone conversation that took place between the witness and former Republika Srpska justice minister Momcilo Mandic in June 1992, in which the latter complained of “bad publicity” resulting from the crisis staff’s expulsion of Muslims and Croats from the area.
But the witness dismissed Mandic as “an idle man” who was “telling stories”.
Prosecutor Alan Tieger said, “So you are saying that Mandic was wrong in saying that you were evicting people from the area?”
“Evictions were not part of our policy,” the witness replied, adding that such a policy was never written down or referenced in public.
This was seized on by Judge Claude Hanoteau of France, who said, “It seems that what you are telling us is that you [acknowledged such a policy] in private but not in public and did not write it down.”
The witness replied, “There was no such policy and I maintain that to this day. We did not have a policy of expelling civilians except in places where combat activities were taking place, or where the population itself wanted to leave.”
The prosecutor also presented Prstojevic with a document issued by the Ilidza crisis staff at the beginning of the war, which spoke of “taking arms against the dishonourable Islamic Jihad and the Ustasha” – a reference to the Bosnian Muslim and Croat sections of the community.
“I am familiar with this kind of language. It is calling for the strengthening of the morale of the Serb nation,” said Prstojevic.
Tieger also presented the witness with a document bearing his signature and asked him if, in his opinion, it contained similar language to that just discussed, such as a call for “victory over the enemy and the liberation of Serb lands”.
“That’s correct,” the witness replied. “This is something that had to be said at the time.”
However, he noted that while it bore his signature, all such documents were produced by a team and approved by the crisis staff, of which he was but one member.
While the witness insisted that there was a loose hierarchy from the municipal authorities he was involved with, to the upper echelons of the Bosnian Serb presidency – where Krajisnik was located – he said that the Serbs of Ilidza had viewed the defendant as “our representative”.
“We thought of him as a man who was born in Sarajevo and would therefore understand us much better,” said Prstojevic.
Judge Orie intervened several times during the course of Prstojevic’s testimony to warn him that he had to make an effort to answer all questions put to him, and to discourage him from giving lengthy and often irrelevant answers. The elderly witness seemed ill at ease during the examination in chief, and often refused to comment on documents presented to him on the grounds that they had been photocopied and were therefore “not reliable”. However, in spite of his apparent reluctance to engage with the court, Prstojevic was not treated as a hostile witness.
Earlier in the week, Krajisnik’s defence counsel Chrissa Loukas continued her cross-examination of witness Milorad Davidovic, a Bosnian Serb police chief who had testified the previous week.
The defence lawyer suggested that instead of being shocked by the lawlessness of the police and militia around the Bjeljina area, as he had claimed the previous week, Davidovic was in fact involved in criminal practises – an allegation he strongly denied.
“What do you call a person who uses his position and police affiliation under cover of his job to transport Muslims from Bjeljina for money. Is that person a criminal?” she asked.
“This is a very heavy accusation,” the witness replied. “These insults are very serious and I am finding it hard to believe that this is actually happening. I would help people, take them to safety and help shelter them. I would help anyone who asked me.”
He added that not only did he not accept payment for such actions but in fact had often given money to others.
This led Krajisnik – who is seeking to take over responsibility for conducting his own defence – to call for the court to hold a “mini trial” for Davidovic in a bid to challenge many of his statements. However, Judge Orie told him that this would not be possible, and warned the defendant to refrain from airing his opinions of the witness in court.
The trial continues.
Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in The Hague.