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

The Kupreskic and Others Trial

Tribunal Update 90: Last Week in The Hague (17-22 August, 1998)
By IWPR ICTY

The first defendant to be brought to trial was General Tihomir Blaskic, commander of the Croat forces in Central Bosnia. His trial commenced on 23 June 1997 and will be resumed this week when the defence presents its evidence.

Zlatko Aleksovski's trial, which opened on 6 January 1998, will also resume this week with the case for the defence. Aleksovski was commander of the Kaonik camp in which Bosniak civilians from the Lasva Valley were detained in 1993.

Anto Furundzija's trial, which opened on 8 June 1998, the third one in the series of the Lasva Valley trials, was practically concluded. But after the defence questioned the credibility of the main witness -the victim of a rape at which the defendant was allegedly present -the trial reopened and will be resumed in mid September.

All three defendants held commanding positions within the ranks of the Bosnian Croat armed forces, which in the spring 1993 carried out co-ordinated onslaughts on a dozen Bosniak villages. They are charged with individual criminal responsibility, and the prosecution maintains that the three either "planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted" the alleged crimes or as superiors "knew or had reasons to know" that their subordinates were about to commit such crimes and failed to take the necessary measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators.

Dario Kordic, political leader of the Croats in Central Bosnia, and Mario Cerkez, commander of a local HVO brigade, are charged with the same type of responsibility. Both of them are currently in custody in the Tribunal's Detention Unit and are waiting for their trial to begin.

The Kupreskic and Others trial opened last week. According to the prosecutor, the accused are guilty of one of the worst Lasva Valley crimes, namely the massacre committed on 16 April 1993, in the village of Ahmici. The accused are: brothers Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic, their cousin Vlatko Kupreskic, Drago Josipovic, Dragan Papic, and Vladimir Santic.

In the first of 19 counts of the Kupreskic and Others indictment, the defendants are accused of "persecution of the Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Ahmici and its environs on political, racial or religious grounds... by planning, organising and implementing an attack which was designed to remove or 'cleanse' all Bosnian Muslims from the village and surrounding areas." This fits the legal definition of a crime against humanity.

Another 18 counts relate to concrete incidents of murder, inhumane acts, and cruel treatment in which some of the accused allegedly took part. These constitute crimes against humanity and a violation of the laws or customs of war. The Kupreskic and Others trial proceeds before the Trial Chamber II (Judge Antonio Cassese, presiding; and Judges Richard May and Florence Mumba). The prosecution is represented by the French-American team, Franck Terrier and Albert Moskowitz. The six accused are defended by eight Croatian defence counsels from Zagreb and Sarajevo.

According to the 1991 census, the village of Ahmici near Vitez had a population of 446, of which 356 were Bosniak and 87 Croat. Today it is ethnically pure, with a 100 percent Croat population. This dramatic demographic development is a result of the military action, which began at dawn on 16 April 1993, and ended on the morning of 17 April, Terrier underlined in his opening statement.

No fewer than 110 people were killed, among them 30 women and 20 children. 180 houses were razed to the ground or reduced to ashes. In fact, all the Bosniak houses and buildings were destroyed, including two mosques. In the wreckage of one of the mosques somebody wrote "48 hours of ashes." While the prosecution admitted it had no evidence that this really was the code name of the HVO operation, this phrase "fully illustrates the pain and suffering of the victims of those events" according to Terrier.

The prosecutor described the events as "a planned, systematic, massive and especially brutal ethnic cleansing operation" aimed at uprooting the entire (Bosniak) community in this Croat majority part of Bosnia. According to the prosecutor, the accused were armed during the operation. At the same time, they provided the HVO forces from outside the area with crucial information which told them which houses belonged to Bosniaks and which to Croats. No Croat house was damaged and there were no Croat casualties.

If the massacre in Ahmici is one of the best documented crimes of the Bosnian war, some of the credit should go to the British Battalion of UNPROFOR, which was based in Vitez, less than five kilometres from the site of the massacre. Having failed to prevent the crime, the British Blue Helmets did their best to document it. The first prosecution witness last week was one of the then commanders of the British Battalion, Colonel Bryan Watters. The British commanders and soldiers, stated Watters, were not only "extremely shaken" and "very angry" with what they saw in Ahmici, but also "felt a sense of personal failure in the unit, because such thing happened in the zone of our responsibility."

According to Watters, the British passed through Ahmici on the day of the attack and saw houses on fire and a few corpses by the road. But they only became aware of the true scale of the crime a week later. There was fighting throughout the Lasva Valley and the Bosnian Army managed to regroup and mount a counterattack three days after the HVO's surprise attack. The British focused on frontlines and spots with the densest concentration of forces, neglecting Ahmici where there were no troops or military installations, nor any other potential military targets.

When they finally entered the village on 22 April to check the rumours of a massacre of civilians, they were shocked by what they found. And what they found was filmed by a BBC crew and photographed by British soldiers themselves. The photos were shown to the Tribunal last week. The well-known reportage by BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, filmed as the British Battalion entered Ahmici, was also shown.

The reportage featured the charred bodies of an adult male and a child on the stairs on the side of one of the burned houses and carbonated remains of four other people -women and children -in the cellar. Five days later the British soldiers removed all the corpses they were able to find. On 28 April they buried about 100 victims from Ahmici in a mass grave in the Bosniak part of Vitez.

Watter's military expertise is particularly relevant for the court. According to him, Ahmici "by any rule of the military law was neither a defended locality nor a military target." The undefended village", said the Colonel, was "systematically destroyed in a ruthless and efficient military operation", while the villagers were killed either in their houses or as they tried to flee. Watters said that he later learnt that Ahmici was "a special place for Bosnian Muslims" given that "large number of religious leaders, imams and teachers" came from there. That made it "an important target in the concept of ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the Lasva Valley" as an example of what would happen to the others if they didn't leave that part of Bosnia."

Watters believes that the motive for the onslaught was twofold. First the Croats aimed to ethnically cleanse the Bosniak minority from Canton number 10 which, according to the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, was meant to come under Croat control. Then they hoped to secure strategically important communications in that part of Central Bosnia. April 1993 provided the Croats with a "window of opportunity" to fulfil these aims, Watters added. The Bosniak-dominated Bosnian Army was engaged on the frontlines against the Serbs, while the international public was focused on Tuzla where convoys of maltreated refugees from Srebenica were arriving every day.

Watters did not personally know any of the accused from the Kupreskic and Others trial, nor did he come across them during his tours of Ahmici after the British Battalion became aware of the crime. At the time, as second-in-command, he communicated only with military commanders and political leaders of both sides in his zone of responsibility.

Some of the survivors of Ahmici who appeared before the court as witnesses last week knew the accused and identified them. One of the witnesses was Abdul Ahmic whose mother, father and three sisters -aged 6, 13, and 14 - were killed on 16 and 17 April 1993. He was himself "executed" when he was shot in the head. Abdul, however, survived his execution. He was shot through the left cheek and the bullet miraculously came out through his right cheek harming no vital bones or organs

. He maintains that he saw the deployment of various military and police units of the HVO and that he followed their attacks on Bosniak houses from the brook in which he was hiding from the morning till the evening of 16 April. On that day and from that spot, Abdul Ahmic did not see any of the accused, but did know most of them. He described Dragan Papic and Zoran Kupreskic as militant Croatian nationalists, uniformed and armed.

Esad Rizvanovic, another of last week's eyewitnesses, described the accused in similar terms. He was a victim of the Bosnian Serbs' "cleansing" of Prijedor in northwest Bosnia in summer 1992. Together with his family, Rizvanovic found refuge in Ahmici only to be "cleansed" from there by the Bosnian Croats on 16 April, 1993. According to his testimony, the first shot (which served as the signal for the attack) was fired from the part of Ahmici in which the Kupreskics lived. After that a barrage of shots started from all sides. The prosecution plans to call some 60 witnesses in all.

At the very beginning of the trial, Judge Cassese tried to establish if there were any common ground between the prosecution and the defence. The defence replied that the only point upon which they were both agreed was that an "armed conflict" took place in Ahmici on 16 April, 1993 - everything else was contested. The prosecution, however, rejected even that. According to them, there was no armed conflict between two sides - one armed side simply massacred the other, unarmed one.

The defence counsels representing the six accused have not yet announced their strategy. They did not submit their pre-trial briefs and they will give their opening statements only after the prosecution has presented its evidence. Judging by their questions in the cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses one can conclude that, unlike the prosecution, the defence will try to prove that there was an armed conflict and that the Bosniak majority in Ahmici was armed.

They will also suggest that the accused Croats, as one of the counsels put it, were "only peasants... defending their homes." Obviously, they were extremely efficient in doing so, given that no Croat house was destroyed or even damaged on the fatal 16 April 1993.

The Kupreskic and Others trial will resume this week.