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Branko Basara, defence witness in the Ratko Mladic trial at the ICTY. (Photo: ICTY)
A defence witness in the case of Ratko Mladic has denied that Bosnian Serb soldiers were involved in crimes committed in the Sanski Most area in the spring of 1992.
Retired Colonel Branko Basara was commander of the 6th Krajina Brigade in the Bosnian Serb army at the time.
Basara has been indicted by the Bosnian state court on charges of crimes against humanity committed in Sanski Most and Prijedor in 1992. At the beginning of his testimony, the judges told him that he did not have to answer any incriminating questions.
Sanski Most is one of the municipalities in which former Bosnian Serb army general Mladic is charged with acts of persecution committed in pursuit of the “objective to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats” living there.
Prosecuting lawyer Edward Jeremy began by discussing the 6th Brigade’s arrival in Sanski Most on April 3, 1992, on the orders of Basara’s superior General Momir Talic, commander of the Krajina Corps.
Talic was indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Hague tribunal, but proceedings ended with his death in 2003.
The prosecution contends that Talic ordered Basara to start working closely with civilian structures in the municipality. Jeremy produced an order signed by Talic with instructions to “establish full cooperation with the organs of government in Sanski Most municipality and collaboration with the TO [territorial defence] and the police units”.
The witness said that in fact this cooperation had only covered “gathering information and reports from the field” and helping staff the territorial defence units.
“In the field, things look different,” he added.
Jeremy moved on to discuss the witness’s relationship with Talic
“You knew General Talic well, yes?” he asked.
“I knew him well because I used to teach at the military academy. I knew him since his time as a cadet. He knew me and treated me with respect during the period of my engagement,” he answered.
Jeremy turned to previous evidence that Basara gave in The Hague, when he testified as a prosecution witness in the case of Stojan Zupljanin and Mico Stanisic, two former Bosnian Serb police commanders who in 2013 were given 22-year jail terms for war crimes.
“In a 2002 interview with the Office of the Prosecutor, you describe Talic as a very active commander, in the sense that he wanted to know what was going on as far as knowledge of events was concerned. Correct, yes?” Jeremy asked. “You also said in your view, he was not an active commander in the sense of actually commanding operations himself, and you said in comparison to – for instance – General Mladic. Is that correct?”
“It is correct that I said that he was not active directing activities,” the witness replied. “In terms of his participation, more the sort of commander who commanded from his command post.”
“And when you compared that style of command to the more active style of General Mladic, were you basing this on any actual observations that you had of General Mladic’s active command style?” Jeremy asked.
“I did not know General Mladic at all,” Basara answered. “I had no occasion to meet him, but based on what I could follow, I concluded that General Mladic was an officer who wanted to know everything, follow everything and participate in things.”
Jeremy moved on to discuss the “six strategic objectives” adopted by the Bosnian Serb leadership at a session of the Republika Srpska assembly on May 12, 1992. The prosecution has argued that these constitute evidence of advance planning for the crimes that were later committed against non-Serbs during the war.
Basara said he had known nothing about the six objectives.
“Is it your position that while you were brigade commander in Sanski Most, you were not aware of the six strategic goals?” Jeremy asked.
“I was not aware of it, at least to the best of my recollection,” the witness replied.
Jeremy went on to argue that Basara was part of the Crisis Staff, the local Bosnian Serb civilian authority, and referred to a number of documents to support this.
The witness responded that he had emphatically refused to be under the command of any civilian structure. “I did not accept that and that is how I stayed on until [the] very end,” he added.
Jeremy produced a document recording the conclusions of a Crisis Staff meeting, dated June 19, 1992. Basara’s name was on the list of its permanent members.
“No, I was not any kind of member of the Crisis Staff,” the witness insisted. “Why they wrote my name down there, I have no idea – probably because I attended certain meetings.”
The testimony moved on to killings that took place in the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) village of Mahala in Sanski Most.
“On May 26, 1992, residents were given a three-hour warning to evacuate, after which units from your brigade shelled Mahala. That’s correct, isn’t it?” Jeremy asked.
Basara said this was a warning to all non-combatants to leave, adding that his brigade shelled Mahala in response to mortar fire coming from inside the village.
“Colonel Basara, civilians in Mahala died as a consequence of this military operation. You know that, yes?” Jeremy asked.
The prosecutor the turned to events in Hrustovo, where a similar evacuation warning was given.
The prosecution recalled testimony which Basara gave in the Zupljanin/Stanisic case, and which stated that all those killed in Hrustovo were Muslims who had taken part in combat, although some were wearing civilian clothing.
“Now Colonel Basara, this chamber has received evidence that Serb soldiers shot dead a number of civilians, overwhelmingly women and children, who were hiding in a garage in Hrustovo on May 31 1992,” Jeremy said. “Just so I’m clear, you’re not suggesting that these persons were somehow Muslim fighters dressed in civilian clothes, were you?”
Basara repeated that warnings were given to non-combatants to leave, adding that “when NATO was bombing, they didn’t give a second for anybody to leave and anyone who was killed was considered to be collateral damage”.
Presiding Judge Alphons Orie asked the witness whether he considered the people killed in the garage “collateral damage”.
“I do not,” the witness replied, but argued that if people did not leave zones under fire, then they risked being killed.
The prosecution turned to the massacre at the Vrhpolje bridge in Snaski Most on May 31, in which 16 Bosniak men were ordered to jump into the river Sana and were then shot.
Basara heard the gunfire and drove up to the scene immediately after the killings. He said eyewitnesses told him that “armed men... some in blue uniforms and some in camouflage” had carried out the shootings.
Jeremy noted that two armed men from the 6th Krajina Brigade were on the bridge when Basara arrived.
“Did you consider that something relevant to include in your statement, and why didn’t you include it?” he asked the witness.
“Nobody asked me,” Basara replied, adding that he had had “no grounds” to arrest the soldiers “because when I jumped out of the vehicle I saw their weapons were on their shoulders, they were not among those shooting. That group fled and they just went on standing there and then they walked up to me.”
“Did you check weapons for any sort of ballistic analysis?” Jeremy asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to sound funny now or anything, [but] I didn’t send it off for an analysis. I didn’t have time to do that, to examine the victims, to send weapons off to ballistics analysis and so on,” the witness said. “All the people I had available were reservists.”
“So 16 men are killed, almost in front of your eyes, and you don’t have time to launch a proper investigation into that. Is that your position?” Jeremy asked.
“It’s not that I didn’t have time – I didn’t have the experts, the organs who could have done that, and I am not a professional; I am not able to do that,” Basara replied. “So that means that during the war I should have dealt with such investigations for 90 per cent of my time and leave aside everything else? And combat was ongoing in Hrustovo, so there was not enough time; there weren’t any professional personnel there who would’ve been capable of doing that.”
Jeremy went on to note an order Basara issued the following day to all subordinate units directing that “in future combat operations we must not make the mistakes we made before... I categorically forbid acts of genocide against the population of the opposing side who are unable to fight, including women, children under 18, the sick and people over 60 years of age.”
The prosecution asked whether this order was a reference to the earlier crimes in Vrhpolje and Hrustovo. Basara acknowledged that it was partly in response to the killings at the bridge, although he denied his own brigade was in any way involved.
“It drove me nuts completely, thinking that people could do such a thing. I was concerned that such a situation could be repeated. That is why I issued this order – to preempt any such future events,” Basara said.
“But was it then your own soldiers who had done it?” Judge Orie asked.
“It wasn’t done by my soldiers, but one learns from others’ mistakes,” the witness replied.
Prosecutors allege that Mladic is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible population transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”. He is accused of the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995, and of planning and overseeing the siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.
Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.
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