Defence witness claims Muslim forces were series of poorly organised militias loyal to various local leaders.


Defence witness claims Muslim forces were series of poorly organised militias loyal to various local leaders.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Lawyers representing wartime Srebrenica commander Naser Oric this week called a former resident of the town and a Belgian aid worker in an effort to show that the accused bore no responsibility for crimes committed in the area in 1992 and 1993.

Prosecutors say Oric is to blame for mistreatment and murders of Serb prisoners by his troops during that period, as well as the wanton destruction of Serb homes in nearby villages.

He is charged partly on the grounds that he failed to prevent his subordinates from committing such acts and that he took no measures to punish the perpetrators afterwards.

But Oric’s defence team, while acknowledging that some such crimes did take place, have argued from the start of the case that the accused had no real control over those responsible.

The Muslim forces alleged to have been under their client’s command, they claim, were in fact nothing more than a series of poorly organised militias loyal to various local community leaders.

Defence counsel have also suggested that many of the acts in question, including the torching of Serb homes, were carried out by starving residents of the besieged town as they scoured nearby villages for any food they could find.

Testimony provided by this week’s witnesses appeared to back up these arguments. But it also sparked a dispute between defence lawyers and judges about the degree to which the horrific conditions faced by the population of Srebrenica during the war are relevant to the specific charges brought against Oric.

Defence witness Sead Bekric this week told judges that before he was blinded during the shelling of a football stadium in Srebrenica in 1993, he was personally involved in many looting raids by thousands of civilians on Serb villages around the town.

Bekric, who attended court accompanied by a guide dog, explained that he was just 13-years-old when war broke out in Bosnia. He found refuge in Srebrenica in September 1992, he said, after being expelled from his home in the village of Voljevica in the Bratunac municipality.

Bekric told the court that during raids on nearby Serb villages, he personally witnessed Muslim civilians setting fire to houses after they had looted them. He added that he hadn’t seen Oric present during any of the attacks in which he participated.

Bekric also confirmed that armed groups in the Srebrenica area were organised around individual local leaders, whose goals were to “defend or recapture their villages taken by the Serbs”. These leaders – three of whom he named as Hakija Meholjic, Akif Hustic and Zulfo Tursunovic – “didn’t respect orders from anyone”, he added.

Also testifying in court this week was Belgian doctor Eric Dachy, a soft-spoken man in his early forties, who used to run the Medicins Sans Frontiers mission in Yugoslavia.

Dachy told judges that when he first visited Srebrenica with a United Nations convoy in December 1992, it was as if he had “reached another world”.

“I was immediately hit by this feeling of physical and psychological misery,” he said, “which was reflected in the behaviour and the attitude of the people we encountered.”

Dachy said he first met Oric during his second visit to the town in March 1993, and that his general impression of the accused was “positive”. He said he found Oric “very kind, but not overly demonstrative or controlling” and that he and other humanitarian aid workers “never had a problem with [him]”.

The accused was “always mentioned with a lot of respect,” he said. “But more than respect, with fondness.”

Much of Dachy’s testimony was given over to a discussion of Srebrenica’s only hospital. He described conditions at the facility, which he said was in desperate need of qualified personnel, medicines and equipment, as “absolutely unimaginable”.

“[Dr Nedret Mujkanovic] had nothing to treat anyone with,” Dachy said, in reference to the town’s single surgeon, with whom he carried out a few operations during his second stay in March. “There wasn’t a drop of disinfectant, a single role of bandage, there wasn’t a millilitre of aspirins or antibiotics or anything at all.”

Mujkanovic himself, when he testified during the prosecution phase of the trial, told judges that conditions in the hospital were “worse than medieval Europe” and that he had been forced to perform amputations without any kind of anaesthesia.

Dachy also described meeting a young girl at the hospital, whose broken arm had been splinted with “two small branches and some sticky paper”, which “had absolutely no effect”.

“There was nothing that could be done,” he said, “and it was miserable and pathetic at the same time.”

Eventually, Presiding Judge Carmel Agius’ objected that Dachy’s testimony was drifting into areas that “don’t need to be addressed by the defence”.

The question of the scope of Oric’s defence case has been an issue since earlier this month, when judges supplied a list of subjects which they considered irrelevant to the war crimes charges in question.

Such topics included the artillery bombardment of Srebrenica and the ethnic cleansing policies of local Serb forces, as well as “the critical conditions under which the population had to live during the period relevant to the indictment”.

But Oric’s defence team have made it clear that they are unhappy about having to maintain such a narrow focus.

“It is part of our case that Srebrenica was a chamber of horrors at the time,” defence lawyer John Jones replied to Judge Agius’ intervention, “and that has a major bearing on what priorities were – whether one should investigate vandalism to properties or whether one should avoid these sorts of casualties.”

The central question of Oric’s wartime role in Srebrenica came back into focus during cross-examination of the witness by prosecutor Jan Wubben. Asked directly by Wubben whether he considered Oric to have been in charge of Muslim forces in the town, Dachy was cautious.

“For me, he was an emblematic figure, that is for certain,” he said. “Whether he had power in the area, that is less certain, and I would be very prudent about that.”

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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