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Srebrenica Execution Tape Prompts Arrests

Shocking war crime video prompts Serbian government to round up former paramilitaries accused of involvement in 1995 atrocity.
By Ana Uzelac

Belgrade moved on June 2 to arrest a number of men suspected of participating in the executions of a number of Srebrenica Muslims, after a video recording of the crime was unexpectedly shown earlier this week in the Hague tribunal and later aired in Serbia.

Hague tribunal prosecutors showed a videotape on June 1 depicting what they claim are members of a notorious paramilitary unit, allegedly operating under the control of Serbian secret services, executing Bosnian Muslims from the fallen enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.

The tape is considered to be one of the strongest pieces of publicly-available evidence of Milsoevic’s government involvement in the biggest atrocity of the Bosnian war and, if authenticated, could significantly boost the genocide charges against him.

The tape was shown during the cross-examination of former Serbian assistant interior minister Obrad Stevanovic, who has testified in Slobodan Milosevic’s defence case for the past three weeks. A number of Serbian TV stations rebroadcast the tape later that evening, causing shockwaves through society.

The spokeswoman for the Belgrade war crimes prosecutor’s office confirmed to independent Serbian media organisation B92 that the ten people arrested were members of the Scorpions unit, and that the executions were committed near the village of Trnovo on the slopes of Jahorina mountain, near Sarajevo.

The video shows men wearing camouflaged uniforms executing a number of young men, two of which were identified this week by their families as missing after the fall of Srebrenica. Four appear to be minors, two in their Thirties.

The tape, which carries no visible time or date, begins with the alleged Serbian paramilitary unit members leading the six captives from a lorry through a wooded area to a place of execution, prodding them like cattle.

The Muslims walk calmly, with their hands tied, their eyes on the ground, looking subdued. The paramilitaries then tell their captives to stop, position them for execution and then shoot them point blank, killing four.

Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica – for a long time staunch opponent of the tribunal – appeared on a press conference in Belgrade on June 2 together with the Hague chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte to announce the arrests, which came after the tape had been aired in Serbia.

"I think it is important for our public that we reacted immediately and that based on this shocking and horrible footage several of those who are involved in this crime are arrested and will answer to justice," he said.

The Hague prosecutors have come across this potentially vital piece of evidence almost a year after they closed their case against Milosevic - and due to complex courtroom procedures, they may face difficulties in including it in their case. According to IWPR sources they received it only in late winter this year - roughly a year after they closed their case against Milosevic.

It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would seek to admit the tape as evidence at this stage, but from the first reaction by Milosevic’s court-assigned counsel Steven Kay QC it was clear that should they try to do so, a full-fledged courtroom battle would likely ensue.

Tribunal insiders and observers seemed to agree that - if authenticated - this could be one of the more significant pieces of evidence proving Belgrade’s direct involvement in the Srebrenica massacres. Milosevic is accused among others of genocide against Bosnian Muslims - and the Srebrenica killings are the only legally established case of genocide in Bosnia.

Serbian governments have repeatedly denied any connection with the massacre at Srebrenica. But tribunal prosecutors insist that Belgrade was involved through units under the command of the secret service, which were under the formal command of the Serbia’s interior ministry and informally directly subordinate to Milosevic himself.

One document that prosecutors had submitted as evidence in the trial was a written order of the Bosnian Serb interior ministry to “transfer the Serbian interior ministry units [under its command] from positions near Sarajevo to positions near Srebrenica” – but no evidence proving that such movement of troops happened has emerged to date. (See Milosevic Linked to Srebrenica Massacre, TU 317, 09-13 June 2003, http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/tri/tri_317_1_eng.txt)

In his earlier testimony, Stevanovic confirmed that some Serbian interior ministry units were indeed dispatched to the Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia and put under Bosnian Serb command. He insisted, however, that those units were only participating in “normal police activities” there and were stationed in and around the town of Banja Luka – a hundred kilometres away from Srebrenica.

Other potentially important pieces of evidence relating to Serbia’s involvement in the Bosnian war and possibly the Srebrenica massacre itself are the minutes of a meeting of the Supreme Defence Council - rump Yugoslavia’s main military coordinative body - relating to this period. However, the vast majority of these have been kept under protective measures on Belgrade’s insistence. (See Justice at What Price?, TU No 407, 17-May-05, http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/tri/tri_407_1_eng.txt)

“But this [tape] is uniquely the first public piece of evidence pointing at Serbia’s involvement, and that makes a big difference,” said one tribunal source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While the prosecutors refused to comment officially on what they intend to do with the tape once it is authenticated, tribunal sources and observers suggested a whole array of ways in which it could be used as evidence. One option would be for the prosecution to ask for the admission of the video as important fresh evidence in the Milosevic trial, but would need to prove that it represents an important new contribution to their case.

It could also be used in the rebuttal phase of the trial, or prosecutors may even ask for the re-opening of their case on the basis of the tape’s importance, according to Edgar Chen, the permanent Milosevic trial observer for the Coalition for International Justice. “It is that new and that serious,” he said.

The video could also play a role in another case – that against the head of Serbian secret service Jovica Stanisic, who was recently released from The Hague detention unit and is awaiting the start of his case in Belgrade.

Chen cautions, however, that before it becomes a valid piece of evidence, the tape needs to be authenticated - and because of its potential weight for the Milosevic case and others, its authenticity is likely to be challenged by any accused, and carefully weighed by the judges.

Other important issues would be to identify the victims as being from Srebrenica, and to prove that the Scorpions unit was actually controlled by the Serbian interior ministry or its special services.

But “if the tape is authenticated and if it is accepted into evidence, this could already be quite devastating for Milosevic’s defence case”, Chen said.

Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s project manager in The Hague.

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