Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The prosecution in the Hague tribunal trial of seven Bosnian Serb army, VRS, and police officials charged in relation to the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 said this week that "the only punishment that can be asked for all the accused is life imprisonment”.
"All of them are individually responsible, because each and every one of them had committed, planned, incited and ordered as well as in other ways supported and assisted the perpetration of the criminal acts they have been accused of,” prosecutor Peter McCloskey said as he concluded his closing arguments.
Vujadin Popovic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Ljubisa Beara, Vinko Pandurevic and Drago Nikolic face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, while Radivoje Miletic and Milan Gvero are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The indictment states that the officials conducted two separate but linked joint criminal plans, along with Bosnian Serb general and war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic, to expel the Muslim population from the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves and “to murder all the able-bodied men captured from the Srebrenica enclave”.
In July 1995, some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed after the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces.
On July 11 that year, around 25,000 Bosniak refugees sought refuge in the UN base in the village of Potocari near Srebrenica before Bosnian Serb troops began the forcible transfer of the refugees from the enclave the next day.
“The large-scale and systematic murder of Muslim men from Srebrenica began on the morning of 13 July at approximately 1100 hours and continued through July 1995,” the indictment states.
The trial of Popovic and his co-accused – who have been dubbed the “Srebrenica Seven” –started on July 14, 2006. They have each pleaded not guilty to all counts against them.
After the prosecution completed its closing arguments, the defence team of Popovic – who during the summer of 1995 was chief of security in the VRS Drina Corps – took to the floor.
Popovic's lawyers asked that their client be acquitted of all charges of genocide and other crimes committed in Srebrenica.
"There is no evidence that the VRS command ever took any decision to murder all men and young males from Srebrenica," said defense attorney Zoran Zivanovic.
The defence denied the prosecution claims that in July 1995, Popovic was in charge of the operation to evacuate the prisoners of war and refugees from Potocari, or that he coordinated the work of the military police who carried this out.
"Popovic had no say in issues of physical security and transport of refugees from Potocari, as is claimed by the indictment," said Zivanovic.
"The prosecutors' arguments and analyses of these issues are not correct; these claims are based on wrong interpretations of relevant rules and documents of the Bosnian Serb army on the treatment of prisoners of war and refugees," he added.
Zivanovic then pointed out that "according to VRS rules, Popovic only transferred an instruction, not an order to the military police". He added that this instruction "only contained directions as to how to keep prisoners as far away as possible from sensitive military infrastructure, in order to ensure taht they do not represent an important source of intelligence for the enemy".
"Popovic had no true jurisdiction for coordinating the Military Police of the Drina Corps," Zivanovic said, refering to the allegation contained in the indictment that Popovic was responsible for coordinating the police as they evacuated the refugees from Potocari.
Zivanovic told the judges in his closing arguments that Popovic was only present in Potocari on July 11, 1995, and, during that time, his sole duty there was to provide counter-intelligence protection for General Mladic.
"Popovic was in General Ratko Mladic's vicinity, but only within the scope of his task to provide him with the protection he needed," Zivanovic said.
The defence then tackled prosecution allegations that Popovic played a role in executions committed at the Kula school near Pilica and the Rocevic school near Zvornik between July 14 and 16, claiming that Popovic was not at either school on July 16.
"The prosecutor was also not able to prove that Popovic had taken part in murdering prisoners, nor that he had been present at executions," Zivanovic said.
According to the defence, when building the case against its client "the prosecution was led by statements from eyewitnesses, which were unreliable and do not conform with the description of the accused Popovic, and can therefore not be trusted."
The defence of former VRS chief of security Ljubisa Beara also presented its final arguments this week, claiming that Beara had "no responsibility to bear for the crimes committed in Srebrenica in the summer of 1995".
According to the indictment, Beara, along with the other four defendants charged with genocide, was responsible for “the forcible transfer of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica and Zepa by means of… the forced bussing of the men, separated at Potocari or captured or having surrendered from the column up to the Zvornik area”.
Beara's lawyer John Ostojic said that the defence "disputes the statements by all 14 witnesses of the prosecution", who each claimed to have seen Beara in various locations throughout the Bratunac and Zvornik area between July 11 and 16.
Because each of these witnesses had said they were alone with Beara, their version of events could not be corroborated with anyone else, Ostojic said.
"The defence claims that numerous witness statements are not reliable in any way, as they cannot be checked, and therefore mustn't be trusted," the lawyer said.
Ostojic argued that the prosecution had "selectively manipulated facts and excluded valid evidence not fitting their story on what had truly happened in Srebrenica in 1995, and whose responsibility these events truly were". However, he provided no further details to support this argument.
"Evidence which completely liberates Beara from any type of responsibility was ignored or concealed," Ostojic added, without citing what particular evidence he refered to.
At the end of his closing arguments, Ostojic said that in the event of a guilty conviction for Beara, any prison sentence awarded to him should not exceed nine years.
A final statement was also delivered by the defence of Drago Nikolic, former chief of security for the Zvornik Brigade of the VRS. His lawyers claimed that "the prosecution ignored various evidence as it had no interest in finding out what the true role of Drago Nikolic in these events was".
Rejecting the prosecution's charges of genocide, and conspiracy to commit genocide, Nikolic's lawyer Stephane Bourgon said that "Drago Nikolic had no intent whatsoever to destroy the Muslims as such, in whole or in part".
Nikolic's defence also strongly disputed the qualification of crimes in Srebrenica in July of 1995 as genocide.
The massacre has been characterised as genocide in judgements passed at both the Hague tribunal and the International Court of Justice, ICJ.
However, Bourgon said that the "crimes in Srebrenica are not genocide".
"There was no genocide – there were murders and horrible crimes, but there was no genocide," he added.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight