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Second Srebrenica Defendant Pleads Guilty

Bosnian Serb officer offers account of his role in killings in return for lesser sentence.
By Emir Suljagic

A second defendant has pleaded guilty in the trial of four Bosnian Serb army officers charged with planning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.


Appearing before the Hague tribunal on May 21, Dragan Obrenovic, 40, looked visibly shaken as he pleaded guilty to persecution, a crime against humanity.


His announcement was the second bombshell to hit the trial. Momir Nikolic, indicted in the same case, pleaded guilty on May 7, a week before the trial began.


Like Nikolic, Obrenovic agreed to testify against the remaining defendants. His plea leaves Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic still on trial.


In return for Obrenovic’s guilty plea, the prosecution withdrew four other war crimes charges, including the most serious, genocide. In addition, the prosecution said it would seek a sentence of between 15 and 20 years rather than life.


Obrenovic was chief of staff and acting commander of the Zvornik brigade in July 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN safe haven of Srebrenica.


Before the trial began, he denied planning or taking part in the killing of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. He said he did not even know that the men from Srebrenica were brought to Zvornik until July 23, 1995 when his wife told him.


The tribunal thought otherwise and in April 2001 it accused Obrenovic of being a member of a "joint criminal enterprise" that aimed to "capture, detain and summarily execute" the men and boys from the enclave.


In the weeks leading up to the trial, many suspected that either Obrenovic or Jokic, not Nikolic, would be first to change his plea. In Obrenovic’s case this was partly because the prosecution held a damning piece of evidence – an audio tape in which he was heard taking orders to execute some of the men.


Like Nikolic, Obrenovic has now provided a written confession in which he described how his soldiers became executioners and how he decided to turn a blind eye to massacres. Unlike Nikolic, however, Obrenovic seemed to express sincere regret for taking part in what is Europe's single worst atrocity since the end of the Second World War.


His confession gives a terrifying insight into the murder operation carried out at Srebrenica. It also illustrates what prosecutors say is a “proud military tradition betrayed”.


In his statement, Obrenovic said that on July 13, as a column of more than 10,000 Muslim men from Srebrenica was fleeing through the woods in an effort to reach Tuzla, his security officer Drago Nikolic told him that an order had come in from Colonel Vujadin Popovic, the Drina corps’ security officer, to kill all of them.


Obrenovic said he initially did not believe it could be true.


Then, on July 14, while he was at the front line, Obrenovic received orders from Drina corps headquarters to send two men who could operate bulldozers, diggers and other heavy machinery to Zvornik.


"The report was specific… and said they were to build a road. I knew the road-building story was not plausible," he said.


Obrenovic suspected his mechanics were being pulled from the front as a personal favour, so he asked who had sent the message. "Five minutes later I received a message from the radio centre that the request was related to the work of Popovic and Drago Nikolic," he said.


It was then that Obrenovic knew that many of the men from Srebrenica had been killed. The machinery, he reckoned, was going to be used to bury them.


The next morning at the headquarters, he met Jokic, the chief of engineering in the Zvornik brigade, who is now on trial in the same case.


"Before I reached my office, Dragan Jokic stopped me in the corridor. Jokic told me he had a huge problem with the burials of those executed, and with guarding those prisoners still to be executed," the defendant said.


He suddenly grew afraid, not because of the killings, but because with so many soldiers diverted from the battlefield to the "murder operation”, the front lines had grown thin. As the remainder of the Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica approached Zvornik, Obrenovic feared that they might attack the town. There were, he thought, more than 3,000 armed men in the column.


In a meeting that day with Zvornik police chief Colonel Dragomir Vasic and two other special police officers, Ljubomir Borovcanin and Milos Stupar, Vasic says he suggested "that a corridor be opened to let the column through". This would avoid casualties and ensure that Zvornik wasn’t attacked. When Obrenovic, who was the only member of the Bosnian Serb army at that meeting, called the general staff to make the suggestion, he says his superiors “told him off”.


General Radivoj Miletic, who was standing in for the Bosnian Serb army chief of staff, forbade it. "He said I should use all possible military hardware to stop and destroy the column, as I had been ordered to do," the defendant said.


Vasic then called the Bosnian Serb interior ministry and managed to get through to one of the minister’s advisers. Vasic put the phone on speaker so everyone in the room could hear what he had to say. “The advisor said that he should find the army and alert the air force, and kill them all,” Obrenovic said.


Obrenovic says that a month after the executions, in August 1995, he saw the man responsible for planning the executions, General Radislav Krstic, and expressed his disapproval of the operation.


"I said that we knew the people killed were all ordinary people, and asked the reason why they had to be killed. I said that even if they had all been chickens, there still had to be a reason," the defendant recalled.


Krstic, whom the tribunal convicted of genocide in 2000, apparently disregarded Obrenovic’s complaints. A month after that meeting, in September 1995, he asked the defendant to help cover up the massacres. His brigade received five tonnes of fuel for bulldozers, diggers and trucks to rebury the remains in new locations.


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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