Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Oric in the Dock

Trial of Muslim commander of Srebrenica seen by some as tribunal attempt to avoid claims of bias.
By Lauren Etter

The Hague tribunal will next week see the start of another high-profile trial - that of Naser Oric, the former commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica.

Oric was in charge of the enclave’s armed forces until the town fell to the Serbs in 1995 and some 7,000 of its male inhabitants were killed, in the largest massacre on European soil since the end of the Second World War.

Although the trial, due to start on October 6, will focus on the events that took place several years before the 1995 massacre, its horrors are bound to resurface in the Hague tribunal’s courtrooms.

Oric, 37, is accused of crimes against Bosnian Serbs that he and the forces under his control allegedly committed in the months between the outbreak of hostilities in Bosnia in the spring of 1992 and the designation of Srebrenica as a UN safe area in 1993.

The prosecutors allege that between June 1992 and March 1993 the troops under Oric’s command destroyed at least 50 Serbian hamlets and villages in the wider Srebrenica area, expelled thousands of their inhabitants and plundered their property - notably livestock and food supplies.

They are hoping to prove that Oric personally planned and participated in at least some of those attacks.

Oric is also accused of alleged torture, beatings and murders of Serb detainees committed by his subordinates at the Srebrenica police station, where inmates were regularly beaten, and kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. The prosecution has listed in the indictment a case of an inmate tortured by extracting his teeth with rusty pliers, and several cases of prisoners beaten to death.

The indictment officially charges Oric and his alleged subordinates - whose names it does not mention - with six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war.

Oric has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Oric is one of a handful of Bosnian Muslims indicted by the Hague tribunal, where the vast majority of indictees are - due to the nature of Bosnian conflict - of ethnic Serb origin. He is also the only one indicted for crimes committed in the Srebrenica area, where ethnic tensions were high throughout the war, culminating in a particularly horrific episode of killings that are now the first legally proven case of genocide in Europe after the Holocaust.

Around a dozen of former high-ranking Bosnian Serb political and military officials have been accused of planning and participating in the massacre.

Ever since the indictment against Oric was made public, it fueled speculation that the case against him may be motivated not mainly by the gravity of his crimes, but by the need for the tribunal to avoid claims of bias – something that the court’s representatives have repeatedly denied.

“To have a Bosnian Muslim suspected of war crimes can show that the tribunal is evenhanded,” said Jan Willem Honig, Dutch scholar and the co-author of a reconstruction of the massacres Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime. “Inevitably the tribunal has to think about balancing the people they indict and put on trial. They can’t just go for Serbs only.”

Oric - arrested by the NATO-led forces in Bosnia in April 2003, on the basis of a sealed indictment - is still seen by many survivors of the 1995 massacre as a hero, not a war criminal.

“I don’t even know why Naser Oric was sent to the Hague tribunal in the first place,” Kada Hodic, vice president of the Srebrenica Women Association told IWPR. “He wasn’t an important political or military figure – he just tried to protect and help the people as best as he could.”

Oric was born in a municipality of Srebrenica called Potocari. After doing his national service in the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, he joined the Belgrade police force, later becoming the bodyguard of the Hague tribunal’s most famous defendant - former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

Over the years, Oric has reached near mythical status among Srebrenica survivors. In the years leading up to the massacre, thousands of towns Muslim inhabitants were being kept on a starvation diet by the surrounding Serb forces, who controlled the flow of United Nation’s food deliveries to the area. Many survivors say that Oric was essential in keeping unofficial food and medicine supply routes open during the three-year siege.

Many also think that Oric managed to prevent Srebrenica from falling in Serbian hands in the beginning of the war in 1992. And he is seen by many Srebrenica survivors as somebody who, had he been there, may have been able to fight off the Serbs three years later.

Oric left Srebrenica in the weeks leading to its fall, allegedly on an order of the Sarajevo government, and there is widespread speculation surrounding this disappearance.

Wartime Bosnian Serb politicians have tried for a long time to depict Oric and the attacks he ordered as a main source of the ethnic hatred in this area. They claimed that the massacre of 1995 was fueled by local Serbs’ desire for “revenge” for the crimes he allegedly committed years before, and not by the cold-blooded calculation of the military and political leaders.

But the new Bosnian Serb government has tried to put a break on such interpretations, coming up this summer with a report that for the first time acknowledged the systematic character of Srebrenica killings.

The defence team for Oric will try to draw attention to the context in which his alleged crimes were committed.

According to their pre-trial brief, they will remind the court that Oric was operating in a climate of “almost total anarchy and chaos”, and comprised of “starved and besieged people facing genocide”, which would, they hope, help diminish the extent of his alleged responsibility for the outrages.

The prosecution will have to provide evidence that Oric had “effective control” over subordinate individuals who committed the crimes alleged. They will also have to prove that he had specific knowledge that his subordinates were committing the acts, and that he failed to take necessary measures to prevent or punish them.

In a pre-trial conference held this week at the tribunal, the prosecution announced it would need four months to put up its case, and the defence was granted the same amount of time, which means that the trial may last for about a year.

The judges – presiding judge Carmel Agius of Malta and two newly sworn-in ad litem judges form Demark and Germany – have allowed the prosecution to amend the indictment at the last moment and describe the conflict in the Srebrenica are as an “armed conflict” rather than an “international armed conflict”, as stands in the original indictment.

The change has no major substantive consequences, since Oric is charged with crimes that do not need to have taken place in an international conflict in order for the appropriate law to be applied, but could shorten the trial time, since the prosecutors would not have to prove the international nature of the conflict.

In Sarajevo, the fact that the Hague tribunal is trying Oric is seen by at least some Bosnian commentators as a proof that the court is actually doing its proper job – prosecuting persons responsible for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, independent of their nationality.

“One cannot look at the Hague tribunal as if it were a restaurant menu,” said Senad Pecanin, editor of the independent Bosnian news magazine Dani. “The Hague tribunal can either be accepted as an important institution dealing with war crimes, or it can be denied.”

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