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'Kupreskic And Others' Trial: Defence Starts Case

Tribunal Update 108: Last Week in The Hague (11-17 January, 1999)

The trial of Zoran, Mirjan and Vlatko Kupreskic, Drago Josipovic, Dragan Papic and Vladimir Santic, started on 17 August last year.

During the two months it took to present the Prosecution evidence, 56 witnesses were examined. It is expected that the Defence will present over 70 witnesses in total. The counsels for the six indicted Bosnian Croats announced that they aim to prove that their clients were on the bottom rung of the "hierarchy of power" and devoid of "any political or military function." This precluded them from taking part in the "planning, organising and executing" of the attack on the Muslim population of the village of Ahmici and other villages in the neighbourhood.

Count 1 of the indictment against which "Kupreskic and Others", charges them with the "persecution of the Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Ahmici-Santici 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."

The Defence will focus upon the events in the Lasva River Valley during the period between late 1992 and early 1993, attempting to refute arguments presented by the Prosecutor and the Prosecution witnesses which attempted to prove that from 1993 onwards, the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) "systematically attacked villages chiefly inhabited by Bosnian Muslims in the Lasva River Valley... [and] that these attacks resulted in the death and wounding of numerous civilians."

The Defence, on the other hand, wish to prove that responsibility for the first open conflict between Bosnian Croats and Muslims in that part of Bosnia, lies squarely on the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H Army), which blocked the Busovaca-Travnik road in Ahmici on 20 October 1992. In doing so, the B-H Army prevented the HVO from sending its reinforcements into the town of Jajce which was then under Bosnian Serb attack.

The Defence further hopes its witnesses will prove that in January 1993, three months prior to the Ahmici massacre, the B-H Army mounted an attack against several Croatian villages in the Lasva Valley and committed the first civilian massacre of the Croat-Muslim conflict in Central Bosnia, in the village of Dusina.

In its case against the six, the Prosecution sought to demonstrate how HVO forces, with the assistance of the defendants and other local Croats, organised and mounted a co-ordinated attack against the undefended village of Ahmici, during which over 100 civilians were killed, including some fifty women and children.

The Defence on the other hand seeks to prove that Ahmici was a "legitimate military target" due to the strategic importance of the road passing through it. They further intend showing that a "reinforced company" of the B-H Army, numbering some 180 combatants, was stationed in Ahmici and the nearby village of Santici, so that the victims of the Ahmici massacre were not only civilian but also military.

Grounds the Defence will use to rebut the particular charges include the claim that the accused were elsewhere at the time the crimes were committed, disputing the way the crimes were reportedly committed and claiming that testimonies given by certain Prosecution witnesses cannot be trusted.

The Defence contends that the defendants were in fact "friends of Muslims," who used to "drink coffee" with their colleagues and visited them during both Christian and Islamic holidays.

The Defence conceded that some of the accused wore black or camouflage uniforms, but, according to Dragan Papic's counsel, this was "merely a fashion, a trend of the day, ... not a sign of any bellicose intentions" It is also conceded that Papic carried a gun, but this was due to his "fear of wild animals" which lived in the forest nearby.

Counsels for Papic and the Kupreskic three regretted that some of the aforementioned Muslim friends of the indictees who had at first expressed a willingness to appear as defence witness, later changed their minds "in fear of the [possible] consequences of their witnessing in support of Croats."

Presiding judge, Antonio Cassese, offered to call these witnesses to the Hague as "witnesses to the Tribunal" or to allow them to give evidence via a video-conference link without disclosing their identities. Papic's counsel replied by saying that neither he nor his client could hope to influence them any longer, since they were "frightened."

The first week of the Defence's case focused upon the testimony of a single witness, Zvonimir Cilic, who was head of the press office at the joint Croat-Muslim crisis headquarters in Vitez, and later press attach? for Mario Cerkez, commander of the HVO Vitez Brigade. Cerkez has himself been indicted in regard to the Lasva Valley crimes. Cilic told the court of the general conditions in Central Bosnia at the time and stated that there was no discrimination against Muslims by Croats.

Cilic also elaborated on the disintegration of central authority in Bosnia at the outbreak of war which saw Croats begin to organise their own defence. He claimed that "parallel structures of government" were being established by all sides and not just the Muslims. Cilic ended his testimony with an analysis of the weaknesses in the organisation of the police force in the area. As a result, he said, "crime blossomed".

During cross-examination, Cilic disputed Prosecutor Franck Terreir's assertion that the Bosnian Croats had - by the dint of their forming the so-called Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia (HZ HB) - started the process of undermining the central authorities in Sarajevo. On the contrary, Cilic retorted, the HZ HB was in fact formed so that Croats would be ready to defend not only themselves, but all Bosnia. Were it not for HVO, the entire Bosnia would have fallen prey to Bosnian Serb Army, he added.

In reply to Prosecutor's question as to who had taken part in the April 16, 1993 attack on Ahmici, the witness answered that he did not know, but that "it was not the Vitez Brigade of HVO." Speculations about this, said Cilic, "still abound."