Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Obrenovic Pleads Not Guilty
Bosnian Serb commander Dragan Obrenovic, appearing in court last week, seemed surprised by his arrest and extradition to The Hague - even though he knew he had been under investigation by tribunal prosecutors.
Standing between two blue uniformed United Nations guards, a visibly nervous Obrenovic pleaded "not guilty" to the five counts read out to him by Judge David Hunt.
Obrenovic is charged with complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity (extermination, murder and persecution on political, racial and religious grounds) and violations of the laws or customs of war. According to the indictment, those crimes were committed between July 11 and November 1, 1995 in the region of Srebrenica.
Obrenovic's lawyer Krstan Simic said his client was taken aback by his arrest because during three interviews with Hague investigators last year he had said he was prepared to surrender voluntarily if an indictment was issued.
But the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, was not prepared to take any risks. The Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, RS, has so far failed to hand over any suspects to the tribunal. Moreover, Obrenovic lived in Zvornik, a town on the border between RS and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
A five-minute boat trip across the Drina river could have brought Obrenovic to Serbia - a country still with a reputation for providing "safe haven" for Hague fugitives.
Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte signed the indictment against Obrenovic on March 21. Judge Liu Daqun confirmed it on April 9 and granted the prosecutor's request that it not be disclosed until the accused was detained. Six days later, Stabilisation Force, S-For, personnel in Bosnia arrested Obrenovic, who was transferred to the Hague on April 15.
Obrenovic's arrest should come as no surprise to Tribunal Update readers. He has been mentioned on several occasions during the trial of Radislav Krstic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, Drina Corps, who stands accused of genocide for his alleged role in the Srebrenica massacres.
In particular, Obrenovic figured prominently during the final stage of the trial when prosecutors presented a tape recording of an intercepted telephone conversation they claimed took place between Obrenovic, the then chief of staff of the Zvornik Brigade - part of the VRS Drina Corps - and Krstic on August 2, 1995.
On the recording, the voice allegedly belonging to Krstic asks, "Are you working down there?" Obrenovic apparently replies, "Of course we're working." The former then says, "Kill them all" and "not a single one must be left alive." The latter responds, "Everything is going according to plan" (See Tribunal Update No. 197).
During the rebuttal phase of the Krstic trial, prosecutors failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the voice allegedly belonging to Krstic was that of the former Drina Corps commander. A prosecution expert who examined the tape could only offer the court an "inconclusive conclusion". (See Tribunal Update No. 214).
The judges, meanwhile, have told the prosecution and defence that the so-called "Kill them all tape" would not be included in the material evidence against Krstic. A written explanation for this decision has yet to be given. But the most likely reason is the late stage at which the prosecution disclosed the tape to the defence during its case.
The recording was presented during the prosecution's cross-examination of Krstic with the intention, so it is claimed, of discrediting the witness by proving he had lied under oath.
However, the tape recording could reappear during the Obrenovic trial. Prosecutors will almost certainly want to ask Obrenovic what he meant when he said, "Everything is going according to plan".
The Obrenovic indictment is the fourth to deal with crimes committed after the VRS captured Srebrenica in July 1995. Within days of the fall of the so-called United Nations "protected area", 30,000 women and children had been deported from the area, and an estimated 7,800 Muslim men and boys murdered.
The first "Srebrenica indictment" was issued back in November 1995 and charged the then political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs - Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - with genocide.
In early 1996, Drazen Erdemovic, a member of the VRS 10th Sabotage Unit, virtually wrote his own indictment when he confessed, first to the Western media, and then to the tribunal, to taking part in the execution of over 1,000 detained men at Branjevo farm near Srebrenica on July 16, 1995.
Erdemovic was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. The sentence was later halved in recognition of his confession, genuine regret and substantial cooperation with tribunal prosecutors.
Krstic, whose trial is now reaching its final stage, was accused of genocide in November 1998. After his arrest in December 1998, his sealed indictment was made public, but edited in a rather ham-fisted way. The names of two other individuals accused of genocide and holding positions of "superior authority" in the VRS were crossed out using a thick black marker pen. (See Tribunal Update No. 104).
Considering the scale of the crime, the fourth Srebrenica indictment may well include other names. This time, however, prosecutors have avoided the clumsy use of marker pens.
Accoding to the indictment, Obrenovic is accused of participating "in a criminal plan and enterprise, the common purpose of which was to detain, capture and summarily execute by firing squad and bury over five thousand Muslim men and boys from the Srebrenica enclave, including the exhumation of the victims' bodies and re- burial in hidden locations".
Obrenovic is not accused of "genocidal intent", but rather with "knowledge that Ratko Mladic and others had intended to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".
The majority of Srebrenica's "toponyms of horror" - like Orahovac, Perkovci, Branjevo, Pilica, Kozluk - were located in and around the Zvornik Brigade zone of responsibility.
In summer 1995, Obrenovic held the rank of major and as Zvornik Brigade chief of staff was responsible for monitoring, controlling and organising the activities of all units within the brigade zone of responsibility. Moreover, on three occasions, during the period to which the indictment refers, Obrenovic allegedly stood in for absent brigade commander Vinko Pandurevic.
According to the indictment, July 4-15, 1995, is particularly critical. At this time, Obrenovic was allegedly acting commander of the brigade. The majority of mass executions at the aforementioned locations took place between July 12 and 15. Most of the primary and secondary graves are located in the same "zone of responsibility".
During the Krstic trial, prosecutors presented a number of documents seized during a search of the Zvornik brigade headquarters in 1998. The documents indicated the brigade's engineering and mechanical equipment played a key role in burying victims where they died and then later in moving the remains in an effort to cover up the crimes.
The indictment claims that after aerial photographs of mass grave sites were shown towards the end of summer 1995, VRS units "participated in an organised and comprehensive effort to conceal and cover up the killings and executions in the Zvornik and Bratunac Brigade zones of responsibility by digging up the bodies from the initial mass graves...and transferring them to secondary graves".
Aerial photographs indicating changes in terrain subsequently led prosecution investigators to 29 secondary grave sites.
Log books itemising the use and movements of the engineering unit's mechanical equipment and detailed records of every litre of oil spent on trucks, dredges and trench digging equipment were also found at the Zvornik brigade headquarters.
Judge Hunt said the Obrenovic trial should begin next year.
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