Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Srebrenica Accused 'Had No Authority'
Had this week’s witnesses in the trial of the Bosnian Serb officer Dragan Jokic told their stories in a local pub, the accused may have felt inclined to defend his reputation in a fistfight.
The whole week long, his fellow officers described Jokic as "a weakling", a man who had no authority over his soldiers and enjoyed little respect from his superiors.
“[Jokic] was not an ambitious officer... his superior commanders didn’t respect him much, didn’t take his opinion into account; he was kept at a distance,” one witness claimed, while another added that the defendant was regularly criticised, and often overlooked when roles were being handed out.
While these portraits are unflattering in the extreme, Jokic's defence counsel hopes that testimony such as this will limit the defendant's responsibility for the July 11, 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.
The United Nations-declared “safe area” was overrun by the Bosnian Serb army on that date, and around 7,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically executed in the following week. These events were recently classified by the Hague tribunal as genocide - the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.
Jokic, 46, is charged with complicity to commit this genocide.
At the time of the attack, he was the Zvornik brigade's chief of engineering, and his remit included the brigade's construction machinery, which was allegedly used to dig the mass graves which would later contain the bodies of Srebrenica victims.
On July 14 and 15, 1995, the defendant was also the brigade’s duty operations officer, and his duties included coordinating communication between the officers in the field and those in the headquarters.
The brigade was involved both in the executions and the burials of the Srebrenica victims.
The prosecution claims that Jokic knew about the murders, and personally participated in the burial of hundreds of victims.
After the end of the prosecution part of the trial, the judges have agreed that Jokic “was aware that the crimes were being committed” - but they have acquitted him of personally instigating, ordering or planning the murders.
At the same time, the trial chamber let the charges of complicity in genocide stand, ruling that Jokic “knowingly provided assistance in the commission of the crimes he is charged with”.
Now Jokic’s defence lawyers are trying to prove that their client was neither directly or indirectly involved in the killings of Muslim prisoners in Srebrenica, had very little authority and was not in a position to issue orders, including those of how the engineering equipment would be used.
The witnesses called included the Zvornik brigade's chief of intelligence, assistant for operations, and its assistant for moral, religious and legal affairs.
Much of this week’s hearings focused on Jokic’s role as duty operations officer on July 14 and 15, 1995.
One of the crucial issues was whether, in the absence of senior commanders on those days, he was in fact in a position to issue any orders to subordinates who oversaw the executions and burial sites.
All three defence witnesses said that as duty operations officer, Jokic could not issue any orders on his own.
To further strengthen its case, the defence is trying to establish the exact whereabouts of Vinko Pandurovic and Dragan Obrenovic - the commander and the chief of staff of the Zvornik brigade respectively - from July 11 to 17, 1995, inclusive.
They are hoping to show that if either of them was within the brigade’s assigned area, it would not have been possible for Dragan Jokic to have assumed any command responsibility.
But, for the most part of this week’s hearings, they had little success in pinpointing the commanders’ whereabouts.
Whenever the defence asked witnesses whether they knew where these commanders were at that time, they received only the vaguest of answers, such as “didn’t see him” or “I’m not sure”.
Both Pandurevic and Obrenovic have been indicted by the Hague tribunal for their alleged roles in the Srebrenica events. The former remains at large, while the latter has been apprehended and has pled guilty.
Obrenovic has already provided some damning evidence against Jokic, telling the court how the chief engineer told him on July 15 “he had a huge problem with the burials of those executed, and with guarding prisoners still to be executed”.
According to witnesses, there was little love lost between Jokic and the much younger Obrenovic. The tensions culminated in Jokic’s transfer from the town of Zvornik to the backwaters of Sokolac after the war. While stationed there, the defendant shared a hotel room with one of this week’s witnesses, the Zvornik brigade’s operations assistant Milan Maric.
Maric told the court that he had been sent to Sokolac as "a punishment" for refusing to provide Obrenovic with an alibi for those critical few days in July in 1995.
Asked by the defence whether he had an opportunity to talk to the defendant about events in Srebrenica when they were alone and far from their families, the witness nodded.
“Yes, especially when we were watching [Hague tribunal] trials on TV," he said. "Whenever I asked Jokic if he was involved in that, I never got the reply that he had known what was happening.”
All of this week’s witnesses claimed they had learned the truth about the events in Srebrenica only years later, when the trials began in The Hague tribunal. The witnesses claimed that all they had heard previously were “rumours” about the massacre, but never knew for sure what had really happened.
They included the brigade's intelligence chief Dusko Vukotic.
“Are you telling me that as a chief of intelligence in the Zvornik brigade you missed such information?” prosecutor Stefan Weaspi asked the witness, not without irony.
“I know it sounds illogical, but I was focused on other things,” replied Vukotic.
Merdijana Sadovic is a IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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