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“There was no line of command. I cannot accept that there was,” Hakija Meholjic, former police chief in Srebrenica, told the court.
Meholjic is the third Bosnian Muslim prosecution witness from inside Srebrenica who has failed to support the prosecution claims that Oric had command responsibility for crimes committed in this eastern Bosnian enclave in 1992 and 1993.
Oric, 37, is charged with looting and burning Serb villages around Srebrenica during that period, as well as with the mistreatment and murders of Serb detainees in the town’s prison.
The prosecution is struggling to show that he had both de jure and de facto command of all units that were operating within his area of responsibility and that he exercised effective control over his subordinates.
The picture that emerged from Meholjic’s testimony – who himself led a group of 55 men – was that “groups of armed men” in Srebrenica “didn’t receive orders”, but decided for themselves “whether or not they would participate in certain military operations”.
Meholjic confirmed that Oric was officially the commander of those units, but said his role was to coordinate rather than command.
Last month, prosecution witness, Becir Bogilovic, also a former Srebrenica police chief, told the court that all the villages around Srebrenica had groups of armed men, with their own commanders. He said that some were never put under Oric’s effective control.
During Meholjic’s testimony, prosecutors introduced a number of documents to show how the armed forces planned attacks on Serb villages in advance. They included minutes of meetings of the Srebrenica war presidency – the highest civilian authority in the area – who, together with military commanders, planned attacks on Serb villages of Fakovici, Bjelovac, Jezestica, among others – all of which are mentioned in the indictment against Oric.
The documents show that Oric seemed to be present at most of these meetings, together with other local commanders.
Meholjic maintained that these meetings were held purely for coordination, saying it was a matter of common interest to get together to raid nearby Serb villages for food.
“There was no food in Srebrenica at the time, we were all starving. Everybody had to participate,” said the witness.
But each commander decided for himself how many men – if any – he would contribute to the operation.
On a couple occasions Meholjic, as a local commander, had refused to send men to these operations. But he “never faced any consequences”.
In October 1992, the witness turned down a request to provide his men for the attack on the village of Fakovici, because his unit wasn’t going to be given enough time to de-mine the area first. Oric came to talk to him about it the same evening, “I said I wouldn’t go along. He told me we would deal with [the issue] after the attack – but nothing happened.”
During the cross-examination defence counsel Vasvija Vidovic asked the witness whether other units in Srebrenica had similar attitude and level of independence. Meholjic agreed.
“I was one of those commanders who acted only when they deemed necessary, and my unit was self-organised and independent,” he said.
Strongly built, Meholjic, 56, appeared uncomfortable on the witness stand and rarely looked in Oric’s direction. The defendant, on the other hand, was rather relaxed. At times, he seemed so amused by the witness’s answers that he had to put his hand over his mouth to hide a smile.
Meholjic was subpoenaed in October last year. He initially requested protective measures, but changed his mind just before his appearance at the Hague tribunal and decided to testify in open session.
Meholjic told the court that he himself never accepted Oric as his superior, although the defendant was appointed commander of the Srebrenica territorial defence staff, TO, in May 1992, which was, at least in theory, the highest military authority in the enclave.
“I thought he was too young and inexperienced, and I didn’t believe he would be able to grapple with the problems that were ahead of us,” he told the court, almost defiantly.
But observers in Bosnia believe the witness had another reason to disobey Oric. They say Meholjic actually wanted Oric’s post. But he lacked the qualities that helped the defendant climb to the top.
“None of those local commanders – including Hakija Meholjic – really accepted Oric as their superior,” said Tuzla-based reporter from Dnevni Avaz, Almasa Hadzic, adding that his good looks and military successes probably played a role in stoking their resentment.
At the time he was appointed military commander, Oric was only 25-years-old and although Meholjic admitted he was “a good fighter and very popular among local population”, he maintained throughout his testimony that this didn’t qualify him as a good military leader.
Re-examination of the witness by the prosecution will continue next week.
Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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