Oric Laywers Call for Acquittal

Case against Bosnian Muslim commander criticised as “weak” and “sloppy”.

Oric Laywers Call for Acquittal

Case against Bosnian Muslim commander criticised as “weak” and “sloppy”.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Over the past eight months, a succession of witnesses have appeared before Hague tribunal judges to describe war crimes indictee Naser Oric, the former commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, in the most glowing terms.

Muslims and Serbs alike have insisted that Oric, who is charged in connection with torture, plundering and murders allegedly committed by men under his command in 1992 and 1993, “never did anything wrong”.

They have maintained that as “a professional soldier in a very difficult situation”, he acted as best he could amid “total chaos” in the town – but simply “didn’t have effective command” over its armed men, or over the desperate, besieged civilian population. Under the circumstances, they even argued, Oric “should not be on trial at all”.

And that was just the prosecution case.

Given a chance to speak after prosecutors finished presenting their evidence this week, Oric’s defence lawyers argued that the case against their client is so thin that it ought to be thrown out of court.

Such arguments are routine at this stage in a trial. But what distinguishes the case against Oric is that – given the limited documentary evidence submitted so far, and the inconsistent or even exculpatory testimony supplied by many prosecution witnesses – observers say his legal team may actually have a point.

Some analysts put the apparent weakness of the case against Oric down to unwillingness on the part of the Republika Srpska, RS, authorities to cooperate with the Hague tribunal.

Some point to a simple lack of documentation recording the situation in Srebrenica at the time. But others go so far as to suggest that the trial may, from the start, have been little more than an attempt by prosecutors to show even-handedness towards Bosnia’s different ethnic groups.

When they opened their case against Oric last October, prosecutors promised to show that, having started out as a charismatic 25-year-old commander in Srebrenica, the accused quickly achieved “warlord” status and became “drunk with power” over the beleaguered local community.

They would bring evidence, they said, to prove that he was author of a plan to expel Serbs from the area around the town by launching military attacks on civilian villages, and that he oversaw the brutalisation and murders of those captured in the process.

They have since called 50 witnesses, including Serbs who survived raids by Muslim fighters on their villages and others who were held prisoner in the town, as well as local Bosnian Muslim residents including some who were close to the defendant during the war.

Speaking in court this week, Oric’s defence counsel John Jones did not dispute the evidence that Serb homes in the Srebrenica area were burned and plundered by armed Muslim men, and that Serb prisoners were tortured and killed. But he insisted that prosecutors had entirely failed to show that those responsible were under his client’s command at the time.

Over the past months, prosecutors have scored some significant goals against Oric. On one occasion, a British army colonel recalled how the accused personally handed over to him a Bosnian Serb prisoner, who the witness described as emaciated and clearly “very frightened”. Some Serb witnesses even testified that Oric was personally present during military assaults on civilian targets.

But a large amount of apparently incriminating testimony provided by Serb witnesses was soon shown to be inconsistent and unreliable when put under the spotlight by defence lawyers.

And in other instances, the accused received support from the most unlikely of sources, with Serbs who said that they had experienced or witnessed torture and murders carried out by Bosnian Muslim troops in Srebrenica actually going out of their way to point out that Oric had clearly been unaware that this was happening.

One man said he heard the accused inquire after a prisoner who had been beaten to death in his cell, only to be informed by Serb prisoners - apparently too scared of the prison guards to tell the truth - that the man had died of a heart attack.

At the same time, most prosecution witnesses drawn from Srebrenica’s Muslim population, amongst whom Oric is still widely viewed as a folk hero, proved ready to jump to his defence in court.

Of those who had seemed to incriminate Oric in earlier interviews with prosecutors, many quickly went back on that evidence in court or at least sought to present it in a different light. Once in the witness stand, they insisted that the accused had no clear command role in Srebrenica during the period mentioned in the indictment. Most of the armed men in the area at the time, they told judges, were nothing more than members of disparate and poorly organised local militias over whom Oric had no authority.

These witnesses also spoke at length about the hordes of out-of-control, starving civilians who followed in the wake of local Bosnian Muslim forces in order to grab what food they could from subdued Serb villages. It was in fact these civilians, they told judges, who were responsible for much of the plundering and destruction that went on at the time.

Some observers that IWPR spoke to were sympathetic towards the tribunal lawyers tasked with mounting the case against Oric. Prosecutors faced a tough task from the start, they said, forced to seek out evidence amongst groups in Bosnia who are notorious for their uncompromising stance towards the UN court.

“One of the main problems in this trial is that neither the RS authorities nor Serb witnesses co-operated with the tribunal and didn’t do much to help the prosecutors,” said Branko Todorovic, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Banja Luka.

Some observers also pointed to the fact that further difficulties were caused by many Serb prosecution witnesses turning out to have incriminating episodes in their past relating to the eventual fall of the enclave. Others pointed to the limited availability of documentary evidence providing a record of day-to-day events in Srebrenica at the time.

“Oric is a far more difficult case to prosecute than [those] on the Serb side, for example, who were members of an organised military structure with a proper ‘paper trail’,” said Jan Willem Honig, a Dutch war scholar and author of a book on the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica by Serb troops in 1995.

“But when you have a lack of written evidence,” added Honig, “then you have to bring credible witnesses to back up your claims.”

Other observers, however, told IWPR that this is exactly where the prosecutors’ case was weakest.

“My impression is that the prosecution witnesses were ill-prepared and generally unable to substantiate the prosecution case,” said Professor Carole Hodge, a leading expert on the Balkans at Glasgow University. “Many turned out to be better defence than prosecution witnesses.”

Emir Suljagic, a journalist who was resident in Srebrenica during the war and escaped just before the 1995 massacre of its male inhabitants, was more blunt in his assessment.

“This is one of the sloppiest trials I have seen so far at the tribunal,” he told IWPR.

“An indictment that is so weak and a prosecution case which has been prepared and conducted so badly will guarantee that Naser Oric will return to his home country one day as a hero, regardless of the outcome of the trial itself.”

Asked to comment on the strength of the case against Oric so far, prosecution spokesperson Florence Hartman told IWPR that she had no comment.

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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