Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Trooping into Court

As lawyers argue among themselves, former Bosnian Serb soldiers testify about the events of July 1995.
By Rachel S.

Former members of the Bosnian Serb army’s Bratunac brigade continued to troop into the courtroom this week to testify for the defence of their commander Vidoje Blagojevic.

Like many of the defence witnesses who have appeared already, these men described their movements in the days before, during, and after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995.

And in most of the pictures they painted, Blagojevic was conspicuously absent.

By bringing witnesses who either did not see, or did not report to, Blagojevic during the days in which 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed at Srebrenica, defence lawyers are trying to show that their client — who is charged with command responsibility for the crimes of his soldiers and complicity to commit genocide — did not have actual control over the area.

To be found guilty under a theory of command responsibility, Blagojevic must have known or had reason to know that troops under his command were about to commit crimes, or had done so — and he must have failed to take steps to prevent the crimes or punish his subordinates.

The week’s first witness, Mile Janjic, a member of the Bratunac brigade’s military police platoon, told the tribunal that on July 12 and 13, 1995, he was tasked with counting the number of people getting onto the buses and trucks that would be used to transport them from the area.

He explained that using a ballpoint pen and paper torn from a notebook, “I drew little lines for every person” who got into a vehicle. On his first day of work, he said, he counted over 9,000.

Although he insisted that he did not personally see members of the Bratunac brigade abusing civilians, he acknowledged that he saw men being separated from women, children, and the elderly, and being forced to leave their luggage behind when they were taken away.

He also told the tribunal that there was an increasing amount of “unrest” as people became aware of the realities they faced.

He recalled hearing a “voice calling something like, ‘People from Glogova, what are you waiting for? They are going to kill us all!’” But before long, he said, he heard automatic gunfire, and “after the shooting I could no longer hear the shouts”.

The next witness to take the stand was Zoran Jovanovic, the former acting commander of the Bratunac brigade’s second infantry battalion, who appeared before the tribunal on May 25.

Beginning on July 12, 1995, he said, his unit was instructed to conduct a search of local terrain. They saw no dead bodies on their search, he reported.

Unlike the week’s other witnesses, Jovanovic did recall interactions with Blagojevic, explaining that sometime after the fall of Srebrenica—though he couldn’t recall the exact date—Blagojevic “asked me to send one unit the size of a company to the Zvornic brigade”.

He selected the fourth company for the task, as the others were already involved in assignments.

The troops did not want to leave, he said, and a “heated argument” took place between him, Blagojevic, and the men. “Some soldiers even pulled out their weapons” and pointed them at Blagojevic, he recalled, before they eventually agreed to go.

In cross-examination, prosecutor Peter McCloskey suggested that just as Jovanovic knew what each of the companies under his command were doing, so too must Blagojevic have known of the activities in which his battalions were involved.

The week’s final witness was Borivoje Jakovljevic, a former soldier in the Bratunac brigade’s military police unit. His job in the days surrounding the Srebrenica massacre, he told the tribunal, was to secure the road between Bratunac, Sase, and Pribicevac.

He recounted seeing the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, General Ratko Mladic, several times during this period. He told of getting the general a shaving kit on the morning of July 13, and of observing Mladic interact with prisoners in the days that followed.

These interactions with captives seemed to follow a pattern. Mladic would get out of his vehicle, find the commander in charge of the troops there, and then address the prisoners. He would tell them that their families were being taken care of and that there were no problems. He would then ask them to be patient, reassure them that things would be fine, and ask if anyone had any special needs.

Defence lawyer Michael Karnavas asked Jakovljevic about the assurances the general gave the prisoners, “Did you believe Mladic?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” answered the witness.

Hearings on May 27 were conducted entirely in closed session. It is likely that the parties spent the time discussing the litany of procedural issues now pending before the judges.

Chief among these is the question of whether the prosecution can amend its indictment to incorporate the tribunal’s recent finding, in the case against General Radislav Krstic, that genocide was committed in Srebrenica.

The prosecution submitted a motion on May 14 requesting permission to do this, and the defence’s reply was due on May 26.

Another potentially volatile issue now before the judges concerns the possibility that a prosecution witness, known for reasons of security only as P-130, may have lied when testifying before the tribunal in January.

P-130 is known to be a member of the Zvornic brigade’s security branch who participated in the executions and burials of thousands of men in Srebrenica.

Karnavas told the tribunal on May 24 that he had learned that the witness, who he described as an “enthusiastic killer”, had not been fully truthful when he spoke before the court.

This is not the first time that questions have arisen about the veracity of witness P-130’s statements. When he testified in January, P-130 admitted to lying on applications to immigrate to the United States, lying about whether he knew the chief of security for the Bosnian Serb army, Colonel Ljubisa Beara (who has been indicted by the tribunal but remains at large), and lying about his role in the Srebrenica murders.

At the time, P-130 told the tribunal, “[Earlier] I said that I had not been at that time part of the operation to kill and execute Muslims in Srebrenica; whereas, in the actual fact, I had spent the entire evening until the morning hours, when I left. After the operation of the execution was completed, I spent the entire time in the headquarters of the Zvornic brigade.”

It is unclear how the tribunal will address these new allegations of perjury.

The prosecution also announced this week that it was preparing a motion to ask the court to reconsider a decision to acquit Blagojevic of direct involvement in the crimes, which judges took in April.

A slew of new facts has come out in the defence part of the trial, said prosecutor McCloskey, and “witness after witness helps us”.

He asked that the judges hold off on their ruling until the defence has presented all of its evidence, and decide what to do then.

The back-and-forth that ensued between defence lawyer Karnavas and McCloskey epitomised the rocky relations that have often come to dominate this trial.

Accusing the prosecution of “turning incompetence into an art form”, Karnavas insisted that McCloskey was trying to harm the lawyer-client relationship by suggesting that he, Karnavas, was introducing evidence harmful to Blagojevic.

Karnavas’ relationship with Blagojevic is already strained, and the defendant has tried repeatedly to have his lawyer replaced.

Tribunal insiders say this tension is attributable to the fact that Karnavas, a court-appointed lawyer, has refused to split his fees with his client. Fee-splitting, though officially prohibited, occurs when an attorney provides a portion of the funds he receives from the tribunal back to the defendant.

A visibly upset McCloskey responded to Karnavas by insisting that his remarks “may be the single most outrageous allegations I have ever heard a lawyer utter in court”.

Presiding judge Liu Daqun admonished the lawyers for spending so much time fighting amongst themselves. Acknowledging their relationship was “tense”, he lamented that too much time was being spent on the relationship between the lawyers and insisted that more be devoted to the witnesses.

Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.