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

Oric Voices Fury at Witness

Uproar as defendant accuses Serb of the murder of “thousands of Muslims”.
By Lauren Etter

Emotions flared at the trial of Naser Oric this week during the testimony of a witness who admitted having been a member of a Bosnian Serb unit notorious for its involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

Nikola Popovic, a baker who joined the Bosnian Serb army, was called by the prosecution this week to speak about an attack by Muslim forces on the Serb village of Kravica in January 1993, which was allegedly overseen by Oric.

But during Popovic’s testimony on December 10, Oric jumped to his feet and yelled that the witness had “killed thousands of Muslims in 1995” and shouldn't be testifying against him. The defendant calmed down after he was threatened with handcuffs by presiding judge Carmel Agius.

Defence counsel excused the incident as a result of their client's sensitivity, which was rooted in the genocide committed against his people.

Naser Oric is the first Bosnian Muslim to be brought before the Hague tribunal for war crimes committed in the Srebrenica area in eastern Bosnia. He is charged with responsibility for the wanton destruction of Serb villages allegedly carried out by forces under his command and for the mistreatment and deaths of Serb detainees.

The crimes listed in the indictment against him are alleged to have occurred between 1992 and 1993, after which Srebrenica became a United Nations-protected enclave. After almost three years of siege, the town was overrun by Serb forces in July 1995, resulting in the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Popovic firmly denied Oric's accusation that he took part in the killings, but he did confirm that he had been a member of the military police of the Bratunac brigade.

Members of the brigade's military police unit are believed to have been involved in the transportation and detention, and possibly also the execution, of prisoners. The brigade's chief of security Momir Nikolic pleaded guilty last year in The Hague to crimes he committed during the July 1995 attack and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

The testimony given this week by Popovic and another witness, Ratko Nikolic, also alleged to have been a member of the Bratunac brigade, focused on the January 1993 attack on Kravica. They said that prison guards under Naser Oric's command regularly beat Serb detainees who were captured in the aftermath of the attack.

Popovic said he first realised an attack was under way early on the morning of December 10, when he heard shots fired and then a siren going off to warn villagers of danger.

He said villagers gathered at the local schoolhouse, which was next door to his own bakery. When the firing became too intense, Popovic fled to the Drina river, and then to a hilltop where he could witness the scene.

"You could see it all quite clearly," he told judges. "The whole area was burning."

Popovic told the court that the people of Kravica had established a defence line in early April of that year, in response to increasing ethnic tensions and a number of previous attacks by Muslim forces. "Things were really brewing, they were heating up," he explained. "Somebody had to be there."

He claimed it was only local people from Kravica who formed a unit of guards to watch over the village. But defence lawyers produced documents showing that soldiers from Serbia were also involved. They also claimed the bakery where Popovic worked was actually run by the Serb military.

The defence is trying to show that Kravica was a legitimate military target, not just a civilian village.

Nikolic, who testified a day earlier, also recounted the attack on Kravica. He said the first he knew of it was when he heard shots fired. He then noticed houses burning and saw a large group of Muslims running down the mountain yelling, "Charge! Catch them all alive!"

The witness said he was able to watch some of the unfolding events from a hollow tree trunk where he had taken refuge. He said he saw groups of people stealing food and other goods, "They were picking things up, whatever they could find. Some were taking away construction materials, entire roof tops.”

Defence lawyers responded by suggesting that these people were not in fact soldiers but were "torbari", or bag people. The people of Srebrenica were starving at the time because the Bosnian Serb military was preventing humanitarian aid from getting through to the town, and "torbari" was the term used for the hordes of starving civilians who would follow Oric's troops, filling their bags with food and other goods from villages that had been deserted by their frightened Serb inhabitants.

The defence says these torbari were often uncontrollable and often fought amongst themselves to obtain food, a fact acknowledged by the witness himself.

"They were collecting wheat from my barn," recalled Nikolic. "They arrived in trucks and tractors and they were arguing - I heard them well. In the evening I saw that they had been drinking coffee and arguing about how to share the wheat."

Nikolic told the trial chamber that he was captured a few days after the attack, on January 12, and remained in Muslim custody until being freed in a prisoner exchange on February 6.

He said the first cell he was kept in was approximately four metres square and unheated. Besides regular beatings, he said, the guards cut detainees with knives, dashed salt on their wounds and poured freezing cold water over them.

"They beat us on a daily basis - day and night," said Nikolic. "You couldn't count the number of times. I was starved and worn out by the beatings."

Nikolic said he was knocked unconscious on a number of occasions, suffered broken ribs and had teeth knocked out. At least one man died in custody, he said.

While defence lawyers made it clear that they didn't wish to minimise any suffering experienced by the witness, they used their cross-examination to challenge Nikolic's account of his treatment at the hands of his Muslim captors. They introduced as evidence a video tape in which Nikolic referred to beatings he suffered on one particular day in February, and argued this suggested that he had only been beaten on that one date.

"I will put it to you that you have exaggerated your mistreatment in Srebrenica to ease your conscience about the killings in which you were involved in 1995," said defence counsel John Jones, after producing documents that showed Nikolic, too, was part of the Bratunac brigade that carried out the Srebrenica genocide in 1995.

Nikolic's testimony also served to increase concerns that some trial witnesses have been coordinating their testimony before appearing in court and even discussing their evidence following their arrival in The Hague.

When defence lawyers asked how Nikolic knew the surname of a Serb prisoner who he said died in Muslim custody, the witness at first replied that he had read it in a document that Popovic gave him after he arrived in the Hague. Minutes later he went back on this and claimed he had received the documents two months ago. Popovic himself staunchly denied ever having given Nikolic any such material.

Tribunal witnesses are strictly forbidden to speak to anyone about their evidence while they are testifying in The Hague.

Lauren Etter is an IWPR intern in The Hague.