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Oric Released Following Conviction

Former Srebrenica commander gets two-year sentence in connection with murders and mistreatment of prisoners – but has already served his time.
The Srebrenica wartime commander Naser Oric was found guilty this week of failing to prevent the murders and cruel treatment of Serb detainees in the town’s prison in late 1992 and early 1993, and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released immediately since he has already spent three years in custody.

At the Hague tribunal, the Bosnian Muslim officer was acquitted of all other charges listed in his indictment, including failure to punish the perpetrators of those crimes, because – as presiding Judge Carmel Agius explained – the prosecution did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had effective control over them.

When he heard the judgement on June 30, Oric, dressed in an elegant dark blue suit, light blue shirt and matching striped tie, smiled and took a Cuban cigar out of his pocket. He did not light it, though, since smoking is strictly prohibited in the tribunal building.

The gesture was Oric’s way of celebrating the outcome of an 18-month trial in which he has already spent more than three years behind bars.

Judge Agius said the accused was to be released immediately. Oric is expected to arrive in Sarajevo on July 1.

The unusually packed public gallery in the main courtroom was filled with Oric’s friends, family members and supporters, who all sighed with relief upon hearing the judgement. Some of them waved to the accused, who smiled and waved back through the thick glass separating the courtroom from the gallery.

Immediately after the hearing, hundreds of people in Tuzla – where Oric has lived since the end of the war – took to the streets to celebrate in a less restrained manner. The celebrations are expected to continue tomorrow, when Oric returns home.

“I am relieved that Oric got only two years, because it means he can leave prison immediately,” said Almasa Hadzic, a reporter for the Bosnian daily Avaz who followed his trial closely from the start.

“I am particularly pleased that he was acquitted of the charges of wanton destruction of Serb property in the villages around Srebrenica, because Serbs have often quoted that as the main reason for the subsequent massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in this town in July 1995,” she said. “Now they’ve lost that argument”.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction in Republika Srpska was completely the reverse.

“This is outrageous,” said Igor Gajic, editor-in-chief of the Banja Luka-based magazine Reporter. “You get more than that for a car crash with no human casualties. This will only add to the feeling of distrust Serbs already have for the tribunal.”

Oric’s defence counsel Vasvija Vidovic said her team would appeal against the judgement, because at the end of the trial in April this year they had called for an acquittal on all charges. But she appeared to be pleased with the judgement, anyway.

The prosecutors appeared less impressed. They had asked for 18 years for the accused, and it is very likely that they too will appeal.

Oric was charged with the murders of seven and the cruel treatment of 11 Serb detainees in the Srebrenica prison in 1992 and 1993, as well as looting and wanton destruction of about 50 nearby Serb villages during the same period.

His indictment initially included six charges. But two of them –relating to the alleged plunder of public or private property – were dropped on June 8, after the judges agreed at the end of the prosecution case that there was no evidence to support them.

At the judgement hearing on June 30, Oric was also found not guilty of wanton destruction of Serb villages around Srebrenica. The judges said they were not convinced Oric was in a position to be able to stop hordes of starving civilians from looting and destroying Serb property in the villages.

In settling on a two-year sentence for Oric, the judges said they had taken into account various mitigating factors such as "the young age of the accused" – he was only 25 when he was appointed commander of the armed forces in the enclave – his lack of "proper military training", the "dire situation and dismal living conditions" in Srebrenica which "deteriorated every day", and the existence of many armed groups whose leaders appeared not to accept his authority."

When speaking about the counts in the indictment relating to the murder and cruel treatment of Serb prisoners, Judge Agius said the trial chamber had rejected defence claims that the accused couldn’t have known about these crimes, because he spent most of his time on the front lines, fighting Serb forces.

The judge said there was enough evidence to suggest that Oric visited the town’s prison on at least two occasions before his immediate subordinate was appointed chief of the military police, and that he had a chance to see the appalling conditions that prisoners were kept in. Therefore, Agius went on, “he had reason to know that the re-occurrence of maltreatment in the prison was possible”, and should have kept a close eye on it.

“But he preferred to do nothing, and that’s the only thing he’s been found guilty of,” said Agius.

It was always clear that Oric’s trial would be different from any other held at the tribunal so far.

“This has not been an easy case,” Judge Agius said in April this year, summarising the 18 months of tough arguments and mutual accusations exchanged between prosecution and defence, the surprising twists and turns, incongruous testimonies, inconclusive prosecution evidence and courtroom drama which marked this case from its very beginning.

Considering the relatively low rank of the accused – he was commander of the Srebrenica Territorial Defence, TO, at the time – and the scope of the crimes he was charged with, many eyebrows were raised when in 2003 the tribunal decided to have him tried in The Hague instead of transferring his case to the local courts.

Since the Hague tribunal was intended to deal only with the most severe war crimes and the highest ranking indictees, the decision only fuelled suspicions expressed by the tribunal’s critics that this was a political trial designed to demonstrate the court’s even-handedness. In the past, the tribunal has often been accused of being anti-Serb because of the sheer number of Serb indictees.

By the time Oric was arrested on April 10, 2003, only six Bosnian Muslims had been indicted – two of them were subsequently acquitted.

But although the tribunal repeatedly dismissed allegations that Oric’s arrest and trial in the Hague was a concession to Serbs, it was always clear that Oric’s name carried special meaning for his former enemies.

For Serbs, Oric was not just some local Muslim commander fighting their troops in eastern Bosnia – he was a villain who terrorised Serbs in the villages around Srebrenica for years, spreading fear among innocent civilians, stealing their food, killing their cattle and burning their homes.

As a local commander, Oric was very successful in military terms. Not only did he manage to prevent Serb forces from conquering Srebrenica in the early stages of war – when Muslims elsewhere were losing a lot of territory – but in a short time he also doubled the territory controlled by his forces.

For this reason, most Bosnian Muslims saw this young, charismatic officer as a symbol of Srebrenica’s resistance against the invading Bosnian Serb army during the war.

Not all Muslims were wowed by Oric’s charm, however. Some accuse him of being a playboy, a war profiteer who gained personal wealth through black marketeering in the besieged enclave during the war. They also say Oric was not so much respected as feared in the town.

But such voices are the minority, and Oric’s supporters dismiss such comments as pure jealousy.

“I am pleased he’s been released,” said one supporter, Nura Begovic of the Association of Srebrenica Women. “But I think he didn’t deserve to spend even one day in prison - he shouldn’t have gone to The Hague in the first place.”

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.

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