Witness testimony supports defence claim that Oric did not control Srebrenica fighters.


Witness testimony supports defence claim that Oric did not control Srebrenica fighters.

Saturday, 3 December, 2005
Two witnesses this week in the trial of wartime Srebrenica commander Naser Oric provided support to defence arguments that he was not in direct command of Bosnian Muslim forces fighting to protect the town from Serb attacks.

Oric is charged with six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war - the destruction of cities, towns or villages, not justified by military necessity - between May 1992 and March 1993.

Srebrenica was later overrun by Serb forces and nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in what the tribunal has confirmed as the first incident of genocide in Europe since World War Two.

Defence witness Mirsad Mustafic was a member of the Srebrenica Territorial Defence - an association that provided humanitarian aid to around 3,000 refugees from Srebrenica, headquartered in the nearby Muslim town of Tuzla.

Mustafic and the defendant were both born in the Srebrenica municipality, Potocari, and he said he had known the former police officer from “very early on in my childhood”.

He testified that in July 1992 he first heard about an organsised group, who were trying to protect Srebrenica, but it was impossible to have any direct contact with Srebrenica because there was no telephone connection between the two cities after the end of April 1992.

He said he learned more when some people made it to Tuzla from Srebrenica in October 1992. There were small groups with no overall organisation - Oric was “with a group of lads there putting up resistance”.

When asked by prosecutor Joanne Richardson if Oric was the group’s leader, his answer was an unequivocal “no”.

The indictment against Oric, alleges that as a leader, he was responsible for the actions of those under his command, especially in the municipalities of Srebrenica and Bratunac in Bosnia and Hercegovina. It says that Oric “exercised effective control over his subordinates”.

Prosecutors allege that Oric attempted to expel all Serbs from the municipality of Srebrenica by attacking, plundering and torching their villages.

Oric was “a young commander who became a warlord”, prosecutor Jan Wubben said in his opening statement.

Oric’s defence team have argued that the accused had no real control over those responsible for crimes, and that the Muslim forces were only small militias loyal to individual community leaders.

“Mr Oric rallied local Muslims by virtue of his natural leadership skills, charisma, military prowess and courage,” said the defence, “rather than because of any formal powers vested in him.”

Defence attorney John Jones told Mustafic that the prosecution had implied that Oric should have travelled 80 km from Srebrenica to Tuzla through minefields in enemy territory to attend a military training session. The prosecution objected, and Jones then altered his question slightly before asking the witness, “Is that a reasonable suggestion?”

“I’m speechless, really,” Mustafic replied. He told how the area between Tuzla and Srebrenica was a kind of no-man’s land, filled with landmines and virtually impossible to cross, adding that a group of people trying to go back to Srebrenica didn’t succeed in returning because they were killed.

“Maybe if Rambo was there he could have gone from Srebrenica to Tuzla whenever he liked,” Mustafic offered, referring to the American action movie hero.

He also confirmed another defence argument that the situation in Srebrenica was so desperate it was like “a living hell”.

“Children, women and men alike were telling me that there was chaos there,” testified Mustafic. “Everything was in total disarray, which is the reason why the events unfolded as they did.”

Since the trial began the defence have argued that the Serb side had an interest in making Oric appear more guilty than he actually was.

Mustafic said he had heard Oric was in charge of the military situation in Srebrenica “only from Serb media”. When Jones questioned whether he thought it may have been propaganda, Mustafic replied, “But of course: Serb media were, in fact, propaganda.”

Another defence witness, a protected witness known only as D-005, testified about the alleged existence of couriers to pass messages between groups of Muslim fighters within the municipality.

The existence of such couriers could indicate that the Muslim forces had a formal military structure, where orders could be issued from the centre.

D-005 said that the people who relayed information pulled themselves out of the front lines and went to seek help from other groups.

During cross-examination Prosecutor Patricia Sellers asked D-005 whether there was a difference between people asking for help and people simply “relaying information”.

Witness D-005 said there was a difference.

He also said that during normal wartime conditions it was usual to keep records of the deceased and injured in your military formation.

“Based on the situation we were in,” he told the court, "I don’t think something like that could have been done.”

Specifically referring to the defence of Srebrenica, the witness said, “These were very small groups and I don’t believe any such records were kept.”

However, when cross-questioned about Oric’s position within the Bosnian forces defending Srebrenica the witness confirmed that he “acted like a commander, and was respected by people as commander”.

Adrienne N Kitchen is an IWPR intern in The Hague.
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