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

Witness Describes Serb Abuse of Prisoners

But Seselj tells court his volunteers had nothing to do with the crimes.
By Simon Jennings
A Bosniak witness in the trial of Vojislav Seselj this week described to judges how detainees were killed, tortured and abused by their Serb captors.

The protected witness, testifying in the trial of the Serb nationalist politician, cried as he spoke of the treatment of prisoners detained by Serb forces in the Zvornik region of Bosnia in June 1992.

The man, known only by the pseudonym VS1065, told the court that ten prisoners at a detention facility in the Zvornik region, including fathers and sons, were placed on a platform and ordered to perform sexual acts.

“The people on the stage had to take off their clothes and were forced to engage in oral sex,” he told the court.

Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, is on trial at the Hague tribunal accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his SRS volunteers in a bid to create a “Greater Serbia” between 1991 and 1993.

The indictment against Seselj contains allegations of the murder and mistreatment of Bosniaks and other non-Serb civilians in prison camps in the Zvornik region of Bosnia, amongst others. Seselj faces charges relating to “sexual assaults of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians by Serb soldiers during their capture”.

Witness VS1065, who testified with his voice and image distorted, described how in late May 1992 he was captured along with 500 other civilians in his home village of Divici in the Zvornik region by men wearing military uniforms.

He told the court that after being transported between various locations, he was selected as one of 174 men of military age and transported to the Novi Izvor administrative building, where the group was detained.

At Novi Izvor, some prisoners were taken out apparently to help search houses around the village, said the witness.

When asked by prosecutor Mathias Marcussen if anyone had seen these prisoners since, the witness replied, “I do not think anybody saw them alive but they were found dead, some of them.”

After three days, the remaining prisoners were transported to the Culture Hall detention facility in Celopek, near the town of Zvornik, said the witness.

He then described the conditions at the Celopek prison and the abuse and killings that took place there. For the first three days, the prisoners were not given any food, he said.

“We had to manage somehow ourselves with the help of the guards. We gave them money and they would get us something to eat.”

Groups of men dressed in military uniform or wearing “half military and half civilian” clothing came to the detention facility, the witness told the court. These men – some of whom the witness identified by nicknames such as “Repic” and “Zoks” – subjected the prisoners to verbal and physical abuse.

“While they were asking for weapons or money, they would threaten us in various ways. Zoks said our lives were cheaper than the bullets in the barrel of the pistol he had,” said the witness.

In early June, the witness explained that up to 15 prisoners were taken outside and never seen again.

“I did not see anybody actually killed. Two people were taken out and you could hear two shots fired. Afterwards, they took another person out to see what had happened outside. They were told to tell us what they had seen,” he said.

A third man known as “Buca”, according to the witness, “stuck a knife into people’s thighs, cut off a person’s finger and poked the knife into the person’s hand and arm”.

Asked by Marcussen if he was abused in this way, the witness replied, “Yes. He also stabbed me in both hands and cut into my left shoulder.”

The witness then described “more serious incidents” that took place on Bajram Day – an annual Muslim festival – in mid-June.

He said the volunteer known as Repic ordered about ten men, including fathers and sons who were paired up, to fellate one another, as he walked around choosing people to shoot.

“When they were ordered to engage in oral sex, Repic selected people who he would shoot at,” the witness told the court.

The witness further described another attack carried out by Repic on two prisoners that same day.

“Repic took out two men…and told them to lie down. I could not see what happened to them, but I heard from others that one had his throat slit and the other was stabbed in the heart,” he said.

After this series of attacks, the dead bodies were loaded onto trucks and taken away and the prisoners had to clean up the mess, the witness told the court.

“We had to clean up everything, so there would not be traces of blood, so that no one could notice that something had happened,” he said.

According to the witness, the men who carried the bodies to the trucks “never came back”.

He then described attacks on prisoners that took place on the Orthodox holiday St Vitus’ Day on June 28, 1992.

The witness said Repic entered the building and fired a gun in the air, wounding three prisoners who fell to the floor, one of whom did not get up again.

“That was the person whose sex organ had been cut off,” said the witness.

The witness said Repic fired repeated bursts of gun fire and killed about 30 people.

After these events, around 100 surviving prisoners were transferred to an old prison in Zvornik, said the witness.

At the end of the testimony, Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti asked the witness if he knew Repic’s real name. It was Dusan Vuckovic, he replied.

Vuckovic, who pleaded guilty to killings in Celopek and was sentenced by a Serbian court to ten years in prison, committed suicide two years ago.

Seselj declined to cross-examine the witness, telling the court that he had testified truthfully.

He did, however, question the relevance of his testimony. The accused denied that he had anything to do with the unit who had committed these crimes and said his volunteers were no longer in Zvornik at the time they occurred.

“He testified about the bestial behaviour of members of the Yellow Wasps [unit] and it’s up to the [Office of the Prosecutor] to prove that after 26 April…a single volunteer of the Serbian Radical Party remained in Zvornik,” said Seselj.

The Yellow Wasps were a Serbian paramilitary unit operating in Bosnia in the early Nineties.

Marcussen said the prosecution planned to bring evidence before the court to link Seselj to the men who committed the crimes.

The trial continues next week.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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