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Oric Signatures Under Scrutiny

Court assesses authenticity of Oric signature on documents prosecutors have used to try to prove command responsibility.
By Helen Warrell
An independent forensics specialist enlisted by judges in the trial of Srebrenica war commander Naser Oric appeared in court this week to give his verdict on 11 contested signatures which have been the subject of opposing analysis by prosecution and defence experts.

Dorijan Kerzan, a handwriting analyst who is head of the department for handwriting an analysis in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, said that out of the 11 signatures, five were “strongly” likely to be Oric’s true signature; one was “probably” his signature; and five were inconclusive.

The prosecution allege that Oric, who is charged with leading Muslim fighters in a string of attacks on over 50 Serb villages in eastern Bosnia between 1992 and 1993, is the signatory of the documents, which include apparent military orders. Some of this evidence has previously been used by prosecutors to try to prove that the accused was in command of the Srebrenica territorial defence force.

Lawyers representing the accused have repeatedly contested this claim, and argue that the accused did not hold a formal command position but rather was part of an “improvised resistance force” in Srebrenica, which had no organised military structure.

The controversy over signatures first arose in January this year when defence expert Professor Esad Bilic gave evidence, which conflicted with the verdict of the prosecution’s investigator, Dr W P F Fagel, who testified in October 2004. To resolve the disagreement, trial judges decided to bring in their own analyst to give a third opinion on the issue.

To aid his evaluation, the judges’ expert, who has apparently done “well over 1,000” separate handwriting analyses so far in his career, was given eight “reference” signatures by Oric to use by way of comparison with the signatures on the contested documents.

Once Kerzan had presented his report under the guidance of presiding judge Carmel Agius, the parties were given an opportunity to examine the expert on his findings. While prosecutor Jan Wubben declined the offer, defence co-counsel John Jones embarked on a lengthy and rigorous inquiry into Kerzan’s methodology and examination technique.

Delving into the intricacies of upward and downward strokes, pen pressure and the potential effects of different writing implements, Jones went through the documents one by one, pressing the witness to explain his conclusions.

Jones also quoted a textbook on the scientific examination of documents which advised readers that the assessment of evidence was “not a mathematical evaluation” but rather, that the personality of the expert “may play a part”. He then asked Kerzan whether this was indeed the case.

“It would be difficult not to agree with that,” the witness replied.

Later in the examination, Jones suggested that Kerzan’s particular approach may have been to “minimise the differences” between the contested signatures and the reference signatures, and to “dwell on the similarities” between them. The expert replied simply that he did not agree, but added that it was impossible ever to state that his opinion was “100 per cent correct”.

Judge Agius ended proceedings by bidding an official farewell to lead prosecutor Jan Wubben, who will be leaving the tribunal on March 17. The judge praised Wubben for having steered the prosecution through what had been, at times, “troubled waters”.

Patricia Sellers will replace Wubben as lead counsel when the trial resumes to hear the parties’ closing arguments in the first week of April.

Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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