Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Blagoje Kovacevic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
A former colonel in the Bosnian Serb army told the Hague tribunal this week that there were no professional snipers in his brigade based at Sarajevo, and that incidents where civilians were targeted were “rigged” by the other side.
Blagoje Kovacevic was the third witness to testify on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, whose defence case began on October 16. [For more, see Karadzic Says He Deserves Praise, Not Prosecution.)
Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, who was president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Karadzic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.
The indictment alleges that Karadzic was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run. He is representing himself in the courtroom.
According to a lengthy summary of evidence which Karadzic read aloud in court, Kovacevic held various positions in the Sarajevo Romanija Corps of the Bosnian Serb army between 1992 and 1996, including chief of operations and training of the 1st Sarajevo Mechanised Brigade, and then commander of a battalion in the same brigade.
He now works as an education and training adviser for the defence ministry of Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Karadzic put no questions to the witness once he had finished reading out the summary of his evidence.
During the prosecution’s cross-examination, lawyer Carolyn Edgerton asked the witness about his assertion that there were “no trained professional snipers” in his unit.
“I was the person in charge of training units. I had never organised nor conducted any training of snipers. Snipers in units are selected on the basis of physical and psychological traits and are subjected to special shooting training. I can categorically assert that in the 1st Sarajevo Mechanised Brigade, there were no such personnel,” Kovacevic said.
He went on to assert that the brigade never issued orders to use snipers. As a battalion commander in the brigade, he said, he would have known about it.
He said it was possible that there were “individuals who wanted to portray themselves as being some sort of specialist to boost their image” but there was no “organised sniper group.”
“Are you disputing that the brigade had firing positions in buildings on Grbavica Street?” Edgerton asked.
“No, but I dispute that they had sniper groups. The brigade did not organise such things. I know that for sure,” Kovacevic said.
Edgerton then read from a wartime army document listing the types of weapons issued to soldiers in firing positions, including semi-automatic rifles with optical sights, machine guns with optical sights, sniper rifles, and sniper-rifle silencers.
Kovacevic replied that the majority of units of the 1st Sarajevo Mechanised Brigade were deployed in the “outer ring” of the city, and not facing it.
“That is where this type is weapon is prominent,” he said, adding that “Croatian and Muslim forces had identical weaponry.”
“Are you saying that brigade units at the confrontation line in Sarajevo did not possess any of these weapons?” Edgerton asked.
“Please, an optical sight can be mounted on any kind of rifle, including a hunting rifle, but [a] person having this kind of weapon does not [make] this person is a sniper. In that case, you can say all hunters are snipers if you apply that logic,” Kovacevic said.
Edgerton then asked who “planned the fire” for soldiers using these weapons in the inner ring of the city.
“There can be no planning of fire. A soldier is either in a trench or in a facility. He’s observing the area in front of him and whatever appears that poses danger, he will fire [at]. If there is no danger, there is no need [to fire],” the witness said.
Edgerton asked “what kind of reporting” units had to make, and if they had to report “every kill” to superiors.
“The person who fires a shot – he doesn’t know whether he made a kill or not. How can he send a report to that effect? This is beyond comprehension,” the witness said.
“Are you saying that a person firing a rifle shot wouldn’t see the target impact? I don’t quite understand,” Edgerton retorted.
The witness chuckled and replied: “I understand that you don’t understand me because you were not in this position.”
He went on to say that “a soldier on the line makes his own decision about whether he will shoot or not, based on the risk assessment that he himself makes”.
“If [the soldier was] really in danger and waited to send a report, and waited for the order to open fire, he would have been killed a hundred times in the meantime. That is completely pointless and senseless,” Kovacevic said.
He pointed out that generally, when a chain of command is set up, an “order is issued of what kind of regime [of] fire is going to be applied, and most often amongst our ranks… we were forced to prove that we were not the ones who opened fire first but rather did it in self-defence”.
Edgerton then asked the witness about a line in his witness statement where he asserts that he only learned about civilian casualties in Sarajevo through the “Muslim mass media.”
Kovacevic confirmed that this was the case, and added that he “didn’t know what was going on in Sarajevo and whether it was really so. I watched that on television.”
“I know how a media war is conducted, and this time the enemy side did not hide it, they openly announced it. I knew that many incidents were rigged but that was all I knew, I didn’t know anything else,” Kovacevic continued.
“Do you mean to say that you had no forward observation of anything that was going on in city?” Edgerton asked.
“In Sarajevo, an urban area, that’s impossible,” the witness replied.
“You had no forward observation of any targets you might be seeking to engage?” Edgerton asked.
“Only what can be seen from the [confrontation] line at a distance of 20 metres,” Kovacevic answered.
Edgerton then pointed out that the witness’s statement says he took measures to avoid collateral damage “when determining whether or not to engage a target”.
“If you fired your weapons with no forward observation I’m really curious about what measures you took to avoid collateral damage,” the lawyer put to the witness.
“You are asking [for] an impossible answer,” the witness said, adding that “to claim that somebody could see from [the] Grbavica [area] what going on in Bascarsija [the old town], that person is crazy… Not every bullet hits the target; there are also ricochets, there are misses, etcetera.”
Edgerton pressed him on this, saying she was not asking for “an impossible answer”, and referred again to his comments about measures to “reduce civilian collateral damage.”
“Quite simply, the order not to open fire without need avoids unnecessary casualties,” Kovacevic replied. “Refraining from senselessly opening fire when there is not a reason – those are simple things, nothing spectacular.… It’s more like appealing to the conscience of the soldier in the trench. To be composed, smart and protect himself without endangering unnecessarily others.”
Edgerton later asked the witness to explain a part of his statement where he says that “we punished breaches of discipline” in the unit.
Kovacevic said the most common example of this would be a soldier getting drunk, firing off his weapon and “provoking a response from the other side.”
Edgerton asked whether any of these breaches had to do with shooting and killing civilians in parts of the city held by the Bosnian government.
“I cannot say precisely what exactly happened over there because I was unable to go there. However, there is one thing that I know because I saw it most often on television… I know many things were staged. There were instances, and I don’t know if they were truthful ones, and it’s not up to me to judge,” Kovacevic said.
Asked whether he ever investigated the shelling of civilians by his forces, the witness said he was not “competent” to do so because he did not have artillery pieces in his unit.
“Were you aware of investigations [into the] sniping and shelling of civilians by [Bosnian Serb] forces in Bosnian government-held territory?”
“I know definitely that the chief of artillery [in the brigade] was maintaining constant contact with the [United Nations] observation team which was deployed at the command post of the artillery unit,” the witness said.
“I take it from your answer that’s a ‘no’, and we’ll move on,” Edgerton replied.
The trial will continue next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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