Krajisnik Denies Knowledge of Ethnic Cleansing

Bosnian Serb politician accused of genocide says he knew little of events on the ground during the war.

Krajisnik Denies Knowledge of Ethnic Cleansing

Bosnian Serb politician accused of genocide says he knew little of events on the ground during the war.

Bosnian Serb politician Momcilo Krajisnik, currently appearing as a witness in his own genocide trial before the Hague tribunal, continued to suggest this week that he lived in an effective information vacuum in the ski resort of Pale during the war in Bosnia and was unaware of the crimes for which he now stands charged.

As his marathon testimony began to draw to a close, it became obvious just how much pressure the former parliamentary speaker was under.

Clearly dissatisfied with his examination by defence counsel Nicholas Stewart and frustrated by the lawyer’s requests that he stay focused on his questions and not go off at tangents, the accused complained, “It would be easy for me to answer if you understood the problem and put the right question.”

At one point, Krajisnik went so far as to ask whether he might be allowed to simultaneously play the twin roles of lawyer and witness for a while, putting questions to himself and then answering them. He even said he could switch between the dock and the witness stand, in order to make it clear which function he was fulfilling at any given time.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie did not dignify the suggestion with a direct response, but agreed to set aside half an hour at the end of Krajisnik’s testimony in which he will have a chance to add any additional facts he thinks have been neglected.

To ensure there is no foul play, Krajisnik has been banned from communicating with his defence team for the duration of his testimony, except under “very exceptional circumstances” and with the prior approval of the judges.

Krajisnik has had a complex relationship with his defence lawyers ever since his original counsel, Deyan Brashich, was forced to quit the trial, having been found guilty of malpractice in the United States. Stewart has since complained that he was thrown in at the deep end when he arrived as Brashich’s replacement, and has been denied the time and resources necessary to get up to speed on the case.

Last year, Krajisnik unsuccessfully sought permission to drop his legal counsel and handle his defence himself.

Besides genocide charges, he also faces five counts of crimes against humanity and one count of violations of the laws and customs of war for an alleged campaign of murders, deportations and persecution intended to drive non-Serbs from large swathes of Bosnia.

Throughout this week, however, Krajisnik continued to argue that any such crimes that occurred during the Bosnian war were carried out spontaneously at a local level and were very far removed from his own work carried out in an office in Pale.

He explained that in the early days after the establishment of the Bosnian Serbs’ Army of Republika Srpska, VRS, the force struggled to deal with undisciplined low-level commanders and local political authorities, and that its top brass strived to take control of paramilitary units.

He denied knowing anything about the establishment of detention camps by the local government bodies known as “crisis staffs”, which prosecutors say were an important tool in exerting Serb control at grassroots level. Similarly, he said he had no knowledge that the crisis staffs were responsible for arrests of non-Serbs, cutting the water supply to the besieged city of Sarajevo, removing non-Serbs from positions of authority and evacuating Serbs from areas that were due to be attacked.

Krajisnik was asked about his reaction to remarks allegedly made in 1992 by Miroslav Vjestica, a Serb parliamentary delegate from the town of Bosanska Krupa in Western Bosnia. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors quoted Vjestica as saying that Muslims in the Bosanska Krupa area had "two options – to organise and leave the municipality or it will be done by military means".

“Vjestica was just bragging,” the accused insisted.

He explained that he had always assumed Serbs were happy to leave Muslim areas and cross into Serb-controlled territory. “I had the impression that Muslims wanted to do the same thing,” he said. “I assumed that similar sentiments were on both sides, because nobody wanted to remain in a minority.”

On many occasions during his testimony, Krajisnik made reference to “expulsions” of Serbs from their homes while speaking in neutral terms about Muslims moving from one place to another. Asked by Judge Orie to explain why he made this distinction, Krajisnik said he had not done so intentionally.

Asked about allegations that the Serb authorities took steps to ensure that Muslims who left Serb-controlled areas would never return, Krajisnik insisted, “I was not aware of that insane idea.”

He also denied knowing anything about Muslims in certain municipalities being forced to sign their property over to the Serbs. “I thought it was a safeguard based on individual agreements among Serbs and Muslims - ‘Look after my property and I’ll take care of your property, and after the war is over everybody will return to their own property’,” he explained.

Krajisnik spent a considerable amount of time discussing testimony given during the prosecution stage of the trial by Herbert Okun, a diplomat who served as an advisor to the United Nations’ envoy involved in the abortive Vance-Owen peace negotiations in Bosnia between 1991 and 1994.

Okun backed the prosecution claim that one of the wartime aims of the Serb leadership was to make the territories under its control as ethnically pure as possible.

“This is absolutely untrue, totally incorrect,” Krajisnik shouted from the witness stand. “I don’t know how Okun came to this conclusion. Our policy was not to remove anyone by force.”

“Ethnically pure Serb territories were never a goal,” he explained elsewhere in his testimony. “The prime goal was the separation of territories with a majority of Serbs, Croats and Muslims – but of course with other ethnic groups living there.”

Krajisnik said information he gleaned from his colleagues such as the then Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic led him to understand that some Muslims were “voluntarily departing from certain territories”. “They were exercising their right to freedom of movement,” he said.

Krajisnik said one of Okun’s main tasks during the war had been to ensure that the Serbs were not granted their own republic within Bosnia.

Elsewhere in his testimony, Krajisnik even went so far as to say that he had in fact never heard of expulsions of Muslims from Serb-controlled territory in Bosnia until his arrival in The Hague.

When Judge Orie asked him to repeat the statement, however, he hesitated. “I’m afraid of falling into a trap... don’t catch me for one word,” he said.

He then acknowledged that he had heard talk of ethnic cleansing – during the Vance-Owen negotiations, for instance – but that he had been led to believe that such reports were untrue.

Karadzic, for instance, told him that “written reports from the VRS and municipal representatives always spoke about the voluntary departure of Muslims.”

Also this week, Krajisnik denied that the Bosnian Serb military had been involved in aggressive land grabs during the war.

The borders of Serb-held territory were originally established by local armed Serbs, he said, and were “just inherited” by the VRS after was founded in May 1992. Changes to these borders afterwards were limited to “small corrections”, he added, explaining that “we gained some territories, and lost some territories”.

When asked whether the VRS was in control of regions in which Muslims had previously been in the majority, Krajisnik’s responses were very unclear and imprecise. Stewart, the prosecution and Judge Orie all took it in turns to press him to clarify his position on the matter.

Finally, the judge slowly spelled out what it was they wanted to know.

At this, Krajisnik replied, “I don’t understand the question.”

After the misunderstanding had finally been cleared up, the accused explained that the VRS had “safeguarded” some territories which had previously been predominantly Muslim.

Krajisnik’s examination by his defence lawyers finished on May 25. Once cross-examination by the prosecution begins on May 29, his testimony is expected to finish within two weeks.

Judge Orie reminded Krajisnik that the half-hour slot set aside before cross-examination next week is only to be used for highlighting any important facts which he thinks have been neglected during his examination in chief. It is not an opportunity to make a speech, he said.

Adin Sadic is an IWPR intern in The Hague.
Support our journalists