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Omarska Trial - Defence witness confesses to killing

Tribunal Update 208 Last Week in The Hague (February 5-10, 2001)

The witness, Dragan Popovic, was a prison guard at Omarska. The tribunal judges had granted Popovic "safe passage", which guarantees he will not be arrested on the basis of his testimony.

The original Omarska indictment, signed by then chief prosecutor Richard Goldstone on February 13, 1995, held Milan Pavlic responsible for the Nasic shooting.

The indictment claimed a large group of prisoners had been detained in the administrative building's canteen in early June 1992. One night the elderly Nasic stood up and shouted in protest at the prisoners' confinement. Pavlic, the indictment claimed, ordered Nasic to sit down.

When the old man refused to comply, Pavlic allegedly opened fire, killing him and wounding several other prisoners sitting nearby.

In May 1998, Goldstone's successor, Louise Arbour, withdrew charges against Pavlic and another ten of the 19 people accused of crimes at Omarska. Arbour said the 11 were "small fry".

The Nasic killing remained in the amended indictment, but without Pavlic's name.

Popovic, however, told the court last week that he was the guard who killed Nasic. He claimed he was given the nickname Pavlic as a child after his grandfather Pavle.

Popovic was summoned as a defence witness on behalf of Miroslav Kvocka who is accused of crimes while deputy commander at the Omarska camp.

According to Popovic, he was on guard in front of the camp canteen on the night in June 1992 when the killing took place. Popovic said he heard "some commotion" coming from the canteen.

Through the window, the witness said, he could see one man standing, trying to persuade the other inmates to attempt a breakout.

Popovic claimed the inmate said to his fellow detainees, "We must escape, we are human as well. Why should you be afraid of the guard. I'll slaughter him".

Popovic said he told the prisoner, "Mister, don't do that, stay peaceful." According to the former guard, the prisoner responded by grabbing a chair and raising it above his head to throw it through the window.

Popovic said he got "very scared" and reached for his automatic rifle with the intention of firing shots into the air. He said he fired "a short burst from his hip" and Nasic fell to the ground. Popovic said he learned later that two other inmates were wounded.

The former guard said the camp commander, Zeljko Mejakic, then arrived and took him away in his car to a café in Omarska "to calm down".

Popovic said Mejakic then told him to report to the Prijedor police station the next morning. Police investigators interrogated him over two days on several occasions, Popovic claimed.

The inquiry allegedly established the guard had fired into the ceiling, but bullets had ricocheted and struck Nasic and the two wounded men. Popovic claimed two detainees corroborated this with the Prijedor investigators. The case was closed.

But no documents have been found relating to any police inquiry into the shooting.

Several former detainees of Omarska gave a different version of events to the tribunal during the "Kvocka and Others" trial. (See Tribunal Update No. 179). The witnesses claimed Nasic's "nerves had given out" on that evening.

"He got up and began to shout, 'What are you doing to us! We are human as well! Long live brotherhood and unity! Long live Comrade Tito,'" the witnesses said.

The guard, whom the witnesses identified as "Pavlic" or "Plavsic", ordered Nasic to sit down. According to the former detainees, when Nasic failed to do so the guard fired through the closed window into the crowd of 100 or so men crammed into the room. Nasic was killed instantly and two or three other inmates wounded.

Some of the former detainees claimed Kvocka was nearby at the time of the shooting. Witnesses said Kvocka reprimanded the prisoners after the incident for failing to calm Nasic down.

Prosecution witnesses also claimed Kvocka's co-accused, Milojica Kos, came round later to ask the prisoners to collect money to pay for the broken window.

Although the tribunal prosecutors, in amending the original indictment, opted not to pursue the individual directly responsible for the killing, the shooting incident remained on the new indictment as part of their case against the camp's commanders who had a duty to prevent such abuse and to punish the perpetrators.

But Popovic and other defence witnesses claim Omarska had only one commander - Mejakic. He's accused of genocide in the Omarska indictment, but is still at large.

According to the defence witnesses - all former or serving police officers - when Mejakic was out of the camp, "the guards commanded themselves".

There were three shifts of guards, the witnesses said, with 20 men in each and about 2,000 to 2,500 prisoners. The witnesses claimed there were no officers in charge of each shift.

Kos and Mladjo Radic are accused of being guard shift commanders at the camp. Kvocka and Dragoljub Prcac, according to prosecutors, were deputies to Mejakic.

The fifth defendant, Zoran Zigic, prosecutors claim, had no official capacity at the camp, but was a frequent visitor and responsible for subjecting detainees to particularly sadistic treatment.