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

Krajisnik Courtroom Hears Controversial Witness

Trial of senior Serb politician in Bratunac gets under way with evidence from a witness earlier criticised for unreliability.
By Ana Uzelac

The second week of the trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, a senior wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was dominated by testimony from a controversial witness whose account could help link the defendant to the crimes committed in eastern Bosnia.


Miroslav Deronjic, who was a leading Serb politician in the Bratunac area in 1992 and like Krajisnik a member of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, seems to be one of the prosecution’s key links between the defendant and the campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass executions conducted in eastern Bosnia in the spring and summer of 1992.


In September 2003, Deronjic pleaded guilty to one episode in this campaign –crimes against humanity in the Muslim village of Glogova in May 1992. In return, prosecutors promised to recommend a reduced maximum sentence of ten years.


Because Deronjic is still awaiting sentencing, Krajisnik’s defence used this status as an argument for preventing him from appearing in court. A defence lawyer remarked that Deronjic could be tempted to embellish his testimony in order to influence his final sentence.


However, the presiding judge, Alphons Orie, ruled that Deronjic could testify.


When he finally appeared late in the morning of February 10, Deronjic offered a detailed inside account of how the policies made by top-ranking Bosnian Serb politicians were implemented at municipality level and eventually led to the expulsion and murder of Muslim civilians.


At the time of the crimes for which he has been indicted, Krajisnik held several important posts, serving as speaker of the Bosnian Serb assembly, a member of the presidency and sitting on SDS’s central board.


Deronjic was head of the party’s Bratunac board and was thus an important link in the party’s chain of command – vital for implementing policies decided at a higher level.


A picture of how this command structure worked emerged gradually over the course of painstaking and sometimes repetitive questioning by the prosecution, regularly interrupted by objections from Krajisnik’s polished and tenacious British lawyer Nicholas Stewart.


During the first two days of his testimony, Deronjic told the story of how, in late 1991 and early 1992, secret SDS directives were given out to the heads of the municipal party boards to set up parallel structures in preparation for a future Serb-dominated territory in Bosnia.


He recounted several high-level party meetings where the policy of forming ethnically pure Serb areas was shaped with increasing clarity and precision, including specific instructions on organising the Serb population according to whether they formed a majority or minority in a given place.


Even more revealing were his descriptions of how the Bosnian Serbs were armed – especially his first-hand account of a meeting with the head of Yugoslav customs Mihalj Kertes in Belgrade in late April 1992, where details of the armament process were discussed. Later that day, Deronjic was taken to an army depot in Belgrade and shown the weapons meant to be used in the looming war.


His testimony, however, did not relate to Krajisnik directly, since there was almost no personal contact between the witness and defendant at the time. The two started meeting more frequently in 1993, when Deronjic’s political career took off in earnest. These meetings fall outside the time-frame of Krajisnik’s indictment, which ends on December 30, 1992.


Deronjic’s appearance at the trial stirred some old controversies. His testimony presents one of the fullest and more detailed accounts of the political mechanisms that led to ethnic cleansing – something that may prove crucial in trials against political leaders such as Krajisnik.


His reliability as a witness, however, has been shaken in several other trials, where he already testified. On one occasion, he admitted not telling the whole truth, and giving testimonies assembled from the stories of cellmates at the Hague detention unit.


At the present trial, these past admissions gave Judge Orie cause to warn Deronjic of the dangers of giving false testimony.


Questions have also been asked about the possibility that Deronjic gave his testimony in exchange for assurances that he would not be tried for the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, which forms a large part of his 70-page official witness statement. The document has already been used in numerous other trials – it was regarded as fairly damaging in the case of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, for instance.


Deronjic’s concern that his testimony could compromise his position appeared to be confirmed when his lawyer asked to be present at the hearing. The trial chamber acceded to this request after considerable deliberation, and under the strict condition that the witness would not try to establish even eye contact with his lawyer.


Opening his examination of the witness, prosecutor Mark Harmon again assured Deronjic that his testimony would not be used against him in the case of Glogova – for which he has already pleaded guilty – but he refrained from extending the assurance to other events and periods.


The only direct link with Krajisnik shown this week was a publicly available document on the “six strategic goals”, passed by the Bosnian Serb assembly in May 1992 and signed by Krajisnik as assembly president.


The document defined the Serbs’ key objective as “separation from Bosnia’s other nationalities”. The other five involved the establishment of corridors and borders to allow the Serbs to live in one continuous territory attached to Serbia proper. One of those corridors was to run along the Drina river, on which the municipality of Bratunac lies.


Last week, the tribunal also reviewed the testimonies of two victims of this campaign, but the prosecution submitted their evidence in written form and they were only briefly cross-examined by the defence.


The first, Suad Dzafic, a villager from Vitkovici in the Bratunac area, survived a mass execution of 32 unarmed Muslim men in the village of Nova Kasaba in May 1992. His testimony – which also included dramatic evidence about the behaviour and motives of the Serb paramilitary units operating in eastern Bosnia at the time – has already been heard at other tribunal trials.


As the court continues to examine Deronjic’s testimony, the signs are that using it to establishing Krajisnik’s complicity in actions committed on the ground will prove time-consuming.


Deronjic will continue giving evident this week.


Ana Uzelac is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.