Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Lawyers representing Bosnian Serb politician Momcilo Krajisnik this week launched their defence case, calling a local government official to speak about alleged persecution of non-Serbs in the area where he worked.
As president of the Bosnian Serb assembly in the early Nineties, Krajisnik was right-hand man to the top war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic. At the time of his arrest by NATO peacekeepers in April 2000, he was the most senior official ever held in tribunal custody.
The indictment against Krajisnik alleges that in 1991 and 1992 he took part in a brutal campaign to drive Muslims and Croats from vast tracts of Bosnia.
The charge sheet lists more than 40 examples of mass killings for which he is said to have been responsible. It also cites beatings, rapes, torture and executions at notorious detention camps such as Omarska, Manjaca and Keraterm.
The first witness to give evidence in Krajisnik’s defence was Nemanja Vasic, a former mayor of the municipality of Prnjavor whose Muslim population fell from 7,000 to just 1,500 over the course of the war.
Prnjavor is specifically listed in the indictment against Krajisnik as an area in which non-Serb citizens were persecuted.
Vasic told the court that he still belonged to the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, of which the accused was a leading member during the war. It transpired that the witness had been kicked out of public office in June 2004 by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, for helping to create a climate of non-cooperation with the Hague war crimes court.
But he defended his decision to testify before the tribunal. “I had a choice whether or not to give evidence and I chose to,” the witness said. “I’m trying to protect the Municipality of Prnjavor’s good name.”
Vasic began the week by discussing a paramilitary unit known as the “Wolves of Vucjak”, who were said by witnesses in the prosecution case to have exercised a reign of terror over non-Serbs in Prnjavor.
In a 1996 speech, Krajisnik called the Wolves’ acts “immortal”, described them as “heroes” and told members of the unit, “You belong to the entire Serbian people.”
This week’s witness, however, denied claims that the unit was under the control of the civilian authorities. In fact, he said, the Wolves were commanded by a senior army member, General Veljko Milankovic.
Much of the rest of Vasic’s testimony was spent addressing the distribution of weapons in Bosnia in the early stages of the conflict there. Prosecutors claim that Krajisnik’s SDS party helped arm Bosnia’s ethnic Serb population.
During cross-examination by prosecutor Alan Tieger, the witness was confronted with a speech he made in 1993, in which he declared, “The SDS played a crucial role in preventing the genocide against the Serbs because it armed the people on time.”
Vasic sought to defend the statement by saying that the role of the SDS was limited to getting the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, to distribute weapons to Serbs.
The witness also discussed the distribution of weapons under the auspices of Prnjavor’s Territorial Defence, TO, a locally-organised reserve force of a kind which existed across the former Yugoslavia, ready to move into action in the event of a crisis.
Vasic insisted that weapons were distributed to both Serb and Muslim members of the TO without prejudice.
Presiding Judge Alphons Orie asked why Muslims were given arms if local Serbs were afraid that they would face a genocide. “We had to act according to the TO law and its provisions,” Vasic replied, “and that’s what we did.”
He didn’t say how many Muslims belonged to the TO.
Vasic also insisted that seizures of weapons from citizens in the Prnjavor municipality had been carried out irrespective of ethnicity.
The witness said he personally signed an order for illegally held weapons to be impounded, in order to ease fear in the area. “Hunting rifles were to be taken from all those who had them, removed from everybody across the board,” he said. “All illegally obtained weapons had to be surrendered.”
Vasic also denied that Muslims were detained and beaten in Prnjavor. “The police did what they were supposed to do,” the witness said, adding, “Whether they stepped over their boundary or not I cannot say – but it did not happen on a large scale.”
Prosecutors will continue to cross-examine Vasic when he returns to the witness stand on October 25.
Adrienne N Kitchen is an IWPR intern in The Hague.
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