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

Kupreskic And Others Trial: The Court Goes To Ahmici

Tribunal Update 91: Last Week in The Hague (24-29 August, 1998)

Provided the president and the registry of the Tribunal approve the Trial Chamber's initiative and the Dutch Battalion of SFOR which is responsible for the area agrees to provide logistical support, the judges, together with the prosecutors and the defence counsels, will journey to the scene of the alleged crime. But the six Bosnian Croats accused of perpetrating the crime there on 16 April, 1993, will not go with them. They will stay in the Detention Unit for security reasons.

As far as the security of the judges and prosecutors is concerned, defence counsel from Zagreb Ranko Radovic stressed "they are not threatened by any danger, at least not from the Croat side". He failed to explain how he could guarantee security on a territory of a foreign state, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nor did he explain which other side, apart from the Croat one, could imperil the visitors from The Hague.

Today Ahmici is an ethnically pure village, 100 percent Croat, and there is no other sides. This dramatic demographic development is a result of the action carried out on 16 and 17 April, 1993, by the armed forces of the Bosnian Croats. According to the prosecutor, the six accused from the Kupreskic and Others trial took part in the action, which, it was stated in the first week of the trial, saw 110 Bosniaks (Muslims) killed, including about 30 women and 20 children, and all Bosniak houses either razed to the ground or reduced to ashes.

Five survivors of Ahmici appeared last week as witnesses. They survived due to the concurrence of various events, even though, as one of them maintained, the attackers were ordered that no Bosniak males between the ages of 12 and 70 "must not remain alive", and all other Bosniaks were to be captured.

The fact that Ahmici is not a compact village is one of the reasons the judges want to visit it. They want to see for themselves its layout and the distances between some key households and spots. Although last week's witnesses were in different parts of the village when the attack started at dawn on 16 April, they all described the general sequence of events in the same way. It all began with the shelling of the Bosniak part of the village. Then came the attacks of smaller groups of soldiers on each Bosniak house. The occupants were either killed on the spot or forcibly taken away. Then the houses were set on fire.

Each of last week's witnesses knew some of the accused, maintaining they were members of the Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) or the military police, uniformed and armed. The witnesses also maintained that on 16 April Bosniak houses and fleeing Bosniaks were shot at from the houses of the accused in the Croat part of Ahmici. Nevertheless, none of the witnesses so far saw the accused attacking Bosniak houses, as the prosecutor charges them.

The prosecutors Franck Terrier and Albert Moskowitz set the scene last week for the appearance of the first witness. His name is Sakib Ahmic and he maintains that on that fatal morning of 16 April two of the accused, brothers Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic, stormed his house, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two of their children--one of whom was a three month old baby--and severely wounded him. Then the attackers set fire to the house. Ahmic made the same deposition before the Tribunal 11 months ago in the trial of General Tihomir Blaskic, the then commander of the Croat forces in Central Bosnia (see Update 46).

The scene for Ahmic's second appearance was set by Payam Akhavan, legal adviser from the Office of the Prosecutor, who at the end of last week appeared in the witness box. As a member of the UN Commission on Human Rights--known as the Mazowiecki Commission, after the former Polish Prime Minister who led it--Akhavan was sent to the Lasva Valley region at the end of April 1993 to investigate rumours of serious crimes against Bosniak civilians in that part of Bosnia, the massacre in Ahmici in particular.

He then went to Ahmici three times and spoke with 50 to 60 survivors who were at the time sheltering in the nearby city of Zenica, controlled by the Bosnian Army. Akhavan found Ahmic in the Zenica hospital where he was treated for the burns he suffered when his house was set on fire. Following Ahmic's testimony and the sketch he made with his help, Akhavan, accompanied by the representatives of the British Battalion of UNPROFOR, was able to find the remains of his house and the charred remains of four people.

Two of them were of adults, one of a child and one an infant. A SKY TV crew filmed the scene and later broadcast it. The reportage was also shown before the court. Akhavan himself took a series of photos of the atrocity, which were submitted to the Tribunal as prosecution exhibits last Friday.

The task of the on site investigation in April and May 1993, Akhavan explained, was not to attribute individual liability, but to establish the responsibility of the entity, i.e. the authorities that exercised effective control in that part of Bosnia. At the time de facto power in Ahmici was in the hands of the HVO and its political backer the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

In an attempt to establish whether there was any plausible alternative explanation for the massacres in Ahmici and other Bosniak villages in the Lasva Valley, Akhavan spoke with the then political and military leaders of Croats in that part of Bosnia: Dario Kordic, Tihomir Blaskic and Mario Cerkez. (All three are accused of crimes in the Lasva Valley and are held in custody by the Tribunal.)

The only alternative explanation offered by Kordic was that either the Serbs or the Muslims themselves committed the crimes "in order to gain international sympathy". Such explanations, Akhavan said, reinforced the UN Commission on Human Rights members' belief that an HVO attack on undefended Muslim villages happened. "There was little, if any, evidence that there was any sustained and organised military resistance (on the Bosniak side); there were no Croatian casualties in Ahmici; and certainly no one was prosecuted or punished for the events in Ahmici", Akhavan concluded.

The Kupreskic and Others trial will resume for three weeks in September. It is expected that the prosecution will complete the presentation of its case by mid-October. This will be followed by a break during which the court will temporarily move to the site of the alleged crime in the village of Ahmici.