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Oric Described as Hero and Villain

Former Srebrenica commander’s defence team use opening statements to challenge prosecution claims of warlordism and plunder.
By Lauren Etter

Listening to this week’s opening statements in the trial of Naser Oric, the Hague tribunal judges may have thought for a second there were in fact two men sitting in the dock - Oric the alleged warlord and Oric the apparent saviour of Srebrenica.

The 37-year-old former commander of the armed forces in the Muslim enclave is accused of the plunder, torture and murder of local Serbs in the first year of the Bosnian war. The charges pertain to the events before Srebrenica became a United Nations-protected area, and years before it was overran by the Serb troops, who executed some 7,000 of its men in the aftermath of the town’s fall.

“This is a case about a young commander who became a warlord,” said prosecutor Jan Wubben, in his opening statement, adding that the defendant was “drunk with the power” he wielded in his beleaguered community.

In spring 1992, Bosnian Serb forces cleansed Muslim villages in wider Srebrenica area as a part of a larger operation to get control of eastern Bosnia. The majority of their population streamed into the town, where food and medical supplies soon became scarce. It was then that Oric formed his armed unit, managed to repel Serb attacks on the town and took charge of its defence.

Prosecutors alleged Oric formulated a military plan to expel all Serbian soldiers and civilians from the wider Srebrenica area, by attacking, plundering and torching their villages.

Many reports from the time of the war confirm that the men under Oric’s command indeed regularly raided surrounding villages in an attempt to keep the Serb forces at bay. The incursions often turned into plundering operations, in which Srebrenica inhabitants tried to restock their dwindling food reserves. Many of the crimes Oric is accused of happened during these attacks, in which many surrounding villages were burned to the ground.

The prosecutor also promised to show evidence confirming that Serb men taken prisoner in these raids were later tortured and murdered in Srebrenica’s prison by Oric’s soldiers.

The prosecutors on October 6 tried to dispel the claim that these actions were carried out of military necessity. Instead the prosecution said they were strategic. “Disobeying laws of armed conflict gave Oric a military edge,” the prosecutor claimed.

A totally different Oric emerged from the defence’s opening statement – a desperate yet brave officer, who protected the starving and fear-ridden Srebrenica Muslims, packed into the “open-air concentration camp” that their city had become by the summer of 1992.

The primary goal of the defence’s opening seemed to be to remind the court of the atmosphere during which Oric’s alleged crimes were committed.

“Srebrenica in this period was a living hell. The people were stalked by their very own four horsemen of the apocalypse - disease, starvation, siege and genocide,” Oric’s British lawyer John Jones said.

The reference to genocide was clearly intended to remind the court of the 1995 massacre of the enclave’s men, hoping they would keep this event at the forefront of their minds while deliberating this case.

He also reminded the court why the enclave of Srebrenica existed at all.

“It was an enclave for the simple but chilling reason that the Serbs, from April 1992 onwards, ethnically cleansed all the Bosnian Muslims from the surrounding areas”, said Jones. “That is a matter of public record.”

Prosecutors maintain Oric at one point turned to applying the same methods as his adversaries. “Lives were lost, families were left destitute, ethnic cleansing spared no group,” said Wubben of period in which the alleged crimes were committed.

But Oric’s lawyer fiercely criticised what he saw as the prosecutor’s attempt to spread the guilt evenly. Jones suggested his client was being used to achieve “moral equivalency” between the widely different crimes Serbs and Muslims committed in the area.

“The purpose of this trial is not to resurrect and vindicate the dead peacekeeping dogma that ‘all sides are equally guilty’.” warned Jones.

The first day of the trial was not limited to dramatic words. Both sides unveiled photos and video footage in an effort to thrust the trial chamber back in time to the years 1992 to 1993, the period covered in the indictment.

The prosecution showed a small handful of photos allegedly depicting prisoners who had been beaten and abused by Oric’s subordinates, as well as a photo of Oric in a camouflage uniform, with a machine gun and two belts of ammunition crossed at his chest.

The defence on the other hand chose to use 20 minutes of their allotted one and half hours time to show live video footage of Srebrenica during the period of the indictment.

Included in the footage were images of children wounded by Serb shelling and streams of fleeing Bosnian Muslim refugees.

Oric - dressed in a neatly pressed suit and tie and with his black hair slicked back - remained silent, waiving his right to address the trial chamber on his initial appearance.

Lauren Etter is an IWPR intern/contributor in The Hague.