Prosecution Casts Doubt on Alleged Lukic Alibi

It says defence witness’s version of events is a fabrication.

Prosecution Casts Doubt on Alleged Lukic Alibi

It says defence witness’s version of events is a fabrication.

Monday, 9 March, 2009
A Hague prosecutor this week called into question an apparent alibi which a defence witness offered for war crimes suspect Milan Lukic.



Witness MLD-24, who was testifying for the defence at the Hague tribunal trial of Lukic, told judges the accused was believed to be away fighting in a conflict on the date he is charged with murdering 70 Bosniaks in Visegrad.



However, the witness provided little detail about this, and admitted his knowledge was based solely on a conversation he claimed to have had with Lukic’s parents.



MLD-24, a former soldier with the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, said that he met Lukic’s parents while he was stationed near the village of Ruiste in Visegrad municipality on June 13, 1992.



“I ran into his parents and they were both in tears,” he said. “I asked, ‘Why are you crying?’”



Lukic’s parents, he explained, had heard about clashes which had broken out in the village of Kopito, some 25 kilometres west of Visegrad, and feared Lukic had been part of it.



“They said he might have gotten killed,” said MLD-24, although he did not reveal any further details.



The defence is trying to build a case that Lukic was part of a reserve police force which fought alongside the VRS.



But prosecutor Laurie Sartorio – who called witness MLD-24’s testimony a “fabrication” – questioned him about his encounter with Lukic’s parents, asking if their comments were his only indication that Lukic had been fighting in Kopito on June 13.



“[Lukic] was [in Kopito] for sure,” responded the witness. “He didn’t come back for three days.”



When presiding Judge Patrick Robinson instructed the witness to answer the question, MLD-14 confirmed that the information about Kopito had come only from Lukic’s parents.



Lukic – who is on trial alongside his cousin Sredoje Lukic – is accused of leading a campaign to terrorise and kill Bosniaks during the summer of 1992 and is charged with murdering more than 150 civilians in the Visegrad area.



The prosecution alleges that on or about June 14, 1992, Milan Lukic and other members of his paramilitary group – known as the White Eagles – herded about 70 Bosniak men, women and children into a house on Pionirska Street in Visegrad, where they were barricaded into one room.



According to the prosecutor’s pre-trial brief, Lukic threw an explosive device into the room, which “ignited a fire near the door and set the house on fire”. Only seven people are said to have survived.



This week, MLD-24 said that after he saw Lukic’s parents, he assumed the defendant must have been trapped in Kopito with other soldiers until June 15, and therefore could not have been in Visegrad to start the Pionirska fire the day before. The witness, who appeared cautious during his testimony, explained that he thought Lukic was in battle until this date, because the surrounding roads were blocked until then as a result of the fighting, and no one could leave the area.



Many victims of the fire were members of the Kurspahic family, who the prosecution says left their village of Koritnik on June 14, after a local Serb ordered all Muslims residents to go.



The group, which arrived in Visegrad around noon, headed towards the town’s hotel, where they were intercepted by Lukic, say prosecutors, and later taken to the house on Pionirska Street.



MLD-24 told defence lawyer Dragan Ivetic that shortly before the house burning incident, he encountered a group of about 30 people, including members of the Kurspahic family, as they passed through his own unnamed village. He said he knew many members of that family quite well.



“Did you see them with your own eyes?” asked Ivetic



“I saw them next to me on the road,” responded the witness.



Ivetic then started reading the names of people listed as having died in the fire – including those of many members of the Kurspahic family. MLD-24 said several of the people mentioned were not with the group he met that day.



During his cross-examination, the witness strongly denied that Lukic was a member of the White Eagles, saying that he was part of the reserve police which fought alongside the VRS.



When Sartorio asked MLD-24 if he ever saw Milan Lukic in combat fatigues with an eagle emblem – apparently alluding to insignia worn by the paramilitary group – the witness responded that “all military personnel wore such eagles”.



Sartorio also cast doubt on the witness’s version of his encounter with the group from Koritnik.



“These were people you had known for a long time, yet when you saw them come in a large group, you didn’t ask them why they left their village?” she asked.



“They said they were leaving and asked me to come with them,” he responded. “I didn’t ask why.”



Sartorio then accused the witness of being “complicit” with the group’s expulsion from Koritnik and said that he was aware they would later be killed.



“You knew what would happen to these persons,” she said.



“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” replied the witness. “I didn’t drive these people out.”



The fact that the witness initially agreed to testify under his real name, then later asked for and was assigned a pseudonym, prompted further prosecution questions.



“Have there been threats?” asked Sartorio.



After a long pause, the witness responded, “No threats, but I was thinking about protective measures because Bosniaks think every Serb is a war criminal.”



Rachel Irwin in an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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