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Kupreskic & Others: The Prosecution's Chief Witness

Tribunal Update 93: Last Week in The Hague(14-19, September 1998)
By IWPR ICTY

According to the indictment, the murders took place at dawn on 16 April 1993, and were part of the Bosnian Croat military/paramilitary operation, which killed between 100 and 200 Muslim inhabitants of the village of Ahmici in the Lasva Valley in central Bosnia.

Sakib Ahmic suffered serious burns on his head, face and arms during the attack, but he nevertheless survived. Last week he appeared before the Tribunal as the prosecution's "chief witness" in the Kupreskic and others case. The Kupreskic brothers are accused along with four other Bosnian Croats of direct involvement in the massacre in Ahmici and face charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war.

In a dramatic, two day long testimony, Ahmic resolutely defended his version of the events of 16 April. He claimed that at dawn Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic broke into his house. Zoran then proceeded to open fire with an automatic rifle, shooting down his son Naser, then his daughter-in-law Zehrudina, and then their two children, four-year-old Elvis, and three-month-old Sejdo. Meanwhile, Mirjan poured petrol over the room and lit a match.

Ahmic watched all this from the door of the living room, and then from the floor (he collapsed feeling nauseated). Even though the faces of the attackers were blackened with paint, Ahmic claims that he clearly recognised his closest neighbours, the Kupreskic brothers whom he has known since their birth, and whom, as he stated, he "watched grow up into decent people".

During year-long medical treatment for burns at the Zenica hospital, Ahmic made statements on several occasions about the circumstances in which his family died. He spoke to the police, the investigating judge, the office for documenting war crimes, as well as Payam Akhavan and Thomas Ossori, members of the Mazowiecki Commission (Tadeusz Mazowiecki - former Special Rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights).

Following the trail of Ahmic's story, in May 1993 members of the Mazowiecki Commission visited the town and found the charred bodies of two adults, one child and one baby in the burnt remnants of Ahmic's house in Ahmici. In July this year, the site of the crime was also investigated by Dutch experts, two of whom appeared as witnesses before the court last week. The traces of fire, fragments of human bones, and a multitude of rifle cartridges, found in the house represent yet one more, unambiguous confirmation of Ahmic's family tragedy.

And the tragedy was not disputed during cross-examination by the Kupreskic's defence counsel, Zagreb lawyers Ranko Radovic and Jadranka Slokovic Glumac. They did, however, point out that in his previous statements, Ahmic had provided a different description of the circumstances in which that tragedy had occurred. They did their utmost to dispute the credibility of this "chief witness."

In numerous statements in 1993, Ahmic said that he watched the crime "peeking through the slightly opened door of his room" and not, as he now claimed, from the very room in which his family was massacred. Besides, his description of the attackers in 1993 had changed: he had claimed that they had black caps and masks on their faces, with openings for their eyes, mouth and nose, which he called "Ninja caps".

The most important contradiction, according to the defence, is that in 1993 Ahmic claimed that he did not recognise the attackers. He did not identify them as the Kupreskic brothers until February 1994. In response to the defence's persistent questioning on this point, Ahmic reiterated that in 1993 he "did not dare name the killers of his children" as at the time he did not trust anyone and did not know how the war would end.

Only later, he said, did he overcome his fear to speak out. Ahmic answered the question put to him by Presiding Judge Cassesse only after the "Dayton truce" at the beginning of 1994 [most probably a reference to the Washington Agreement of February 1994 which ended the Croat-Muslim war in Central Bosnia].

At the end of his testimony, the prosecution once again asked Ahmic who had broken into his house on 16 April 1993, and killed his family. The defence lodged an objection, pointing out that the question had already been asked many times, and that the prosecution was trying to enhance the "last impression" the witness made on the judges. Presiding Judge Cassese overruled the objection, asking the defence counsel "to have confidence in the court" which, he stressed, would " not make judgements on the basis of the last impression".

After the question was repeated, the Ahmic said: "Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic came. Zoran killed my family, and Mirjan set the house on fire, and that was finished". To the prosecutor's additional question of how sure he was, Ahmic answered briskly, "100 per cent." The defence, however, believe that they had managed to raise "reasonable doubt" as to the credibility of the witness.

The next prosecution witness, British Army Captain Charles Stevens, was called to help the prosecution prove that Ahmic genuinely had reasons to fear for his safety while in the Zenica hospital in 1993. This they did through questions on events in the region and more specific accounts of Captain Stevens experience.

The defence lodged an objection to the question about the explosion of the cistern-truck in the centre of Stari Vitez and the shelling of the centre of Zenica, claiming that these incidents took place after 16 April. The prosecution, however, responded that these events were relevant because they could instil fear in the witness and influenced his decision to keep quiet about who had massacred his family.

Captain Stevens was a member of the BritBat UNPROFOR from November 1992 to May 1993, and had been stationed in the Lasva Valley. He was in Ahmici itself three times after 16 April 1993, acting as an escort for Colonel Bob Stewart. During one of his visits the unit investigated the burnt remnants of Muslim houses and the ruins of the mosque. Captain Stevens came across a man, dressed half in uniform and half in civilian clothes and armed with an AK47. Introducing himself as "Dragan", the man said "Muslims", and made a cutthroat gesture with his hand, writing the number "32" in the dust. Captain Stevens concluded from this that the person he had run into was boasting that he had slit the throats of 32 Muslims.

On the second day of Captain Stevens' testimony the prosecution announced that the witness was prepared to identify "Dragan". Looking in the direction of the bench for the accused, Captain Stevens said that he was "90 per cent sure that it was the accused Dragan Papic". The defence lodged an objection to this unannounced identification, claiming that the prosecution had influenced the witness after the first day of the trial.

Even the judges admitted they were in two minds about the identification, and asked for a hearing on when it is permissible for the prosecution and the defence to communicate with their witnesses. The prosecution deems that such communication is legitimate until the end of the main questioning of the witness, but not before and during the cross-examination; the defence will present their opinion when they have reached agreement on their position.

Caught out by the surprise identification of his client, Papic's defence counsel, Zagreb lawyer Petar Puliselic, tried to suggest that Captain Stevens might have misunderstood the message "Dragan" was trying to pass on during their encounter in Ahmici. Perhaps, Puliselic put it, "Dragan" had wanted to tell him that Muslims slit the throats of 32 Croats? "I did not get such an impression", Captain Stevens responded.

If the presentation of evidence by the defence ends as expected on 16 October, the court (judges, prosecution, and defence) will set out to visit the site three days later.

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