Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mladen Blagojevic, defence witness in the trial of Ratko Mladic. (Photo: ICTY)
A defence witness in the trial of Ratko Mladic this week denied that the former Bosnian Serb army chief indicated that prisoners should be killed while he was in the Srebrenica area in July 1995.
Mladen Blagojevic was a military policeman serving as bodyguard to Mladic at the time, and gave testimony before the Hague tribunal this week.
Mladic is accused of genocide and other crimes relating to the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The eastern Bosnian town was declared a “safe area” in 1993 and a United Nations peacekeeping battalion was assigned to protect it. Despite this special status, the Srebrenica enclave was seized by Bosnian Serb forces on July 11. In the days that followed, more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces.
In 1998, Blagojevic was convicted by a Bosnian court for his role at Srebrenica.
Defence counsel Miodrag Stojanovic focused on Blagojevic’s recollection of July 13, 1995, as it related to testimony given by Bosnian Serb army (VRS) officer Momir Nikolic when he appeared as a prosecution witness at the Mladic trial in June 2013.
Nikolic said that when Mladic was asked what should be done with captured Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) at Srebrenica, he “smirked” and made a cutting gesture with his hand. (See Mladic's Scything Gesture Meant "Execution".)
Nikolic was himself charged with crimes at Srebrenica, and pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity in 2003. In 2006, he was given a 20-year sentence, which he is serving in Finland.
Defence counsel Miodrag Stojanovic began by reading a summary of the witness statement on the events of July 13, 1995. Blagojevic was one of a squad of military policeman assigned to follow Mladic and his permanent escort in the Bratunac and Srebrenica areas.
After travelling through Potocari and into the village of Suceska, “General Mladic addressed VRS troops and congratulated them on the operation they had successfully completed,” Stojanovic read.
They then headed towards Konjevic Polje, and en route stopped for a while in the village of Sandici.
“General Mladic got out of the vehicle, seeing on the right side of the road about 100 Muslims who had surrendered. He addressed them in a very conciliatory tone, telling them not to be afraid, that they would be exchanged for Serbs who had been captured, and he also asked them if there were any sick people among them and if they needed a doctor, but nobody said anything,” Stojanovic read from the statement.
At the Konjevic Polje checkpoint, which was manned by a few civilian policemen, they stopped again and, according to the witness, Mladic “yelled at those policemen because they seemed quite laid back, as if they were there to sunbathe and not work.”
“The witness emphatically maintains that the statement by Momir Nikolic about him talking to General Mladic at that checkpoint, and that General Mladic motioned to him showing that the Muslims would be liquidated, is untrue; that the whole story is completely fabricated. He is certain that on that day he did not see Momir Nikolic at Konjevic Polje, and he knew Momir Nikolic very well.”
When prosecution counsel Matthew Gillett cross-examined the witness, he gave an account of events at the Vuk Karadzic school in the town of Bratunac later on July 13, after Blagojevic had finished his work guarding Mladic.
“One of the Bosniak men appeared at the window of a room at the school, whereupon [Blagojevic] pointed a Browning machine gun mounted on a Pinzgauer [vehicle] at the window at which the Bosniak man appeared and opened fire from it, targeting both this man and the other Bosniak men inside the same room, while the bullets hit the window and the wall around the window. That’s the factual basis on which you were convicted, correct?”
Blagojevic agreed this was part of what he had been convicted of, but maintained that he did not feel guilty.
Gillett went on to examine events at a football stadium in Nova Kasaba, one of the stops that Mladic made that same day. Several hundred Bosniak prisoners were being held there, and the defence counsel read out testimony from one of the detainees. This unnamed prisoner described how as Mladic was giving a speech, a young Bosniak stood up and interrupted him. He was seized by Bosnian Serb soldiers “who started beating him with rifle butts and kicking him, and then one of them shot him with a rifle. His body was thrown into a nearby ditch.
“Mladic was present but didn’t react at all. They told us that if any one of us should behave his way we would be killed,” Gillett read.
The witness maintained that no such event happened while he and Mladic were at Nova Kasaba.
“The general wouldn’t have allowed that,” he said.
Gillet turned to the witness’s movements after he finished guarding Mladic, when he returned to Bratunac headquarters and was instructed to head to the Vuk Karadzic school. The witness said he could not recall whether it was Nikolic or his direct superior Mirko Jankovic who gave him the order.
“In fact you did see Momir Nikolic on July 13, didn’t you?” the prosecutor asked, pointing out that in his witness statement, Blagojevic had categorically denied seeing Nikolic on that day.
The witness said there might have been a mistake in the translation of his statement.
After the war, Blagojevic moved to the United States with his wife and young son. He lived there from 1998 until 2006, when he was deported to Bosnia for immigration fraud. He told the defence this week that he had been “tricked” by advice that “for purposes of speeding up our immigration”, he should not report his involvement in the Bosnian war when applying for his original visa. That led to problems later on “because under the US law it amounted to an illegal entry” and he was deported.
Upon arrival at Sarajevo airport, he was arrested on charges relating to events of the night of July 13-14, 1995. After he finished his guard duty with Mladic, he was sent to guard the Vuk Karadzic school in Bratunac, where several hundred civilian Bosniak men were detained. In 1998, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina convicted him after finding that he abused prisoners held in the school and took part in executions.“I was sentenced to seven years, but for as long as I live I shall fight that judgement because I do not feel guilty,” he told the tribunal.
Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.
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