Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Milorad Pelemis, defence witness in the Mladic trial at the ICTY. (Photo: ICTY)
A former Bosnian Serb officer told judges in The Hague this week that neither he nor Ratko Mladic had been in command of soldiers who carried out a massacre at the Branjevo farm following the fall of Srebrenica in 1995.
Milorad Pelemis, a defence witness in the trial of the former Bosnian Serb army chief, was commander of the10th Sabotage Detachment at the time. Soldiers from his unit took part in the mass execution of more than 1,000 captured Bosniaks at the Branjevo farm on July 16, 1995.
The prosecutor's office in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) regards Pelemis as a war crime suspect and has issued an arrest warrant for him.
Mladic is accused of genocide and other crimes relating to the events in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which 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 his witness statement, Pelemis asserted that members of his unit “did not go and carry out the liquidations at Branjevo as an organised unit that has its chain of command” and that “therefore, no one from the hierarchical structure of the 10th Sabotage Detachment exercised command over them or issued an assignment to those people on that day”.
Pelemis’s says that at the time of the killings, he was in hospital recovering from injuries he sustained in a car crash on July 12.
He rejected testimony previously given by Drazen Erdemovic, a former Bosnian Serb soldier who in 1998 pleaded guilty to murder as a war crime and served five years in prison for participating in the Branjevo executions. (See Former Soldier Recalls Branjevo Farm Killings.)
Erdemovic, a former member of the 10th Sabotage Detachment, has testified as a prosecution witness at all the Srebrenica trials, including that of Mladic. He claimed that Pelemis ordered a soldier under his command to kill a Bosnian Muslim prisoner in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.
Pelemis said that Erdemovic made this allegation because he held a personal grudge against him.
Prosecuting counsel Peter McCloskey asked the witness about the purpose of missions his detachment carried out in Srebrenica before the fall of the enclave.
Pelemis said they had intended to deter the Bosnian government army from carrying out raids in which it was killing Serb civilians in areas around Srebrenica.
McCloskey alleged that the real reason for the operations, which included the firing of shoulder-launched M80 Zolja rockets, was to sow “panic and disarray” amongst all Srebrenica’s inhabitants, both military and civilian.
Pelemis denied this, adding that it “was never our goal, never our intention to kill a single civilian. If that had been our intention, we could have killed all the people in the settlement. We entered through a settlement where there were at least 300-400 people and we came back the same way. Nobody was harmed.
“We targeted those facilities which were mapped out for us, we knew where they were. If a single Zolja missed its target at three am, it’s a different story. I don’t know who may have fired it and how that happened, but it was not intentional.”
The prosecutor then turned to a report from a Hague tribunal investigator who collated numbers for the bodies exhumed from mass graves in the Branjevo farm area.
“After this many years, many if not all the graves associated with Bratunac farm have been exhumed and by DNA analysis individuals been identified and counted,” McCloskey said. “And we can see from this report that when the grave was first exhumed in 1996, 140 bodies were found, and over the next many years, many secondary graves connected to that grave were found,” he continued, adding that the total number of bodies was eventually put at 1,751.
“Erdemovic also testified that were approximately 500 to 600 Muslim men being kept in the cultural centre in Pilica that were executed,” he continued. “Add in both estimates... you get almost to the actual number that, some 18 years later after the work started, we now have.
“You have to admit Erdemovic was very good in his estimates, wasn’t he?” McCloskey concluded.
The witness replied that “if these are the statistics and they are correct, then I have to accept [them]”.
However, he added that he could not believe that a few members of his unit could have killed so many people.
“Did you know they had help from people from Bratunac [Brigade]?” the prosecutor asked.
“From the statements of the young men who gave evidence in Sarajevo, I know that some of them were also involved,” Pelemis replied.
He later said that his men had reported “paramilitaries” coming into the area on buses.
“When I was commander, nobody was killed because I would not allow something like that to happen. But I am fully prepared to cooperate with the BiH court in investigating who did that,” he said.
Regarding the international arrest warrant issued by the BiH prosecutor’s office, Pelemis said he was willing to cooperate with its investigations. However, he said he needed to seek legal advice first and was worried he was being set up.
“I have not been in Bosnia for over ten years, I don’t know how I could help the investigators from [my home in] Belgrade,” he said. “I spoke to them indirectly through my lawyers, I offered them my services.”
“What happened that you got in touch with them, started offering your assistance?” McCloskey asked.
“Nothing,” Pelemis replied.
“Does it have anything to do with your name being mentioned in proceedings in Republika Srpska that made you feel you might be targeted, and for that reason you consulted a lawyer?” the lawyer asked.
Pelemis said this was “not exactly” why he had come forward, explaining that “some other people from Vlasenica” wanted to blame him for the mass killings.
Presiding Judge Alphonse Orie asked him to give the names of these people, offering to go into private session if necessary.
The witness refused, although after repeated questioning he gave one name as Kraljevic, a man from Vlasenica, adding that he was “not 100 per cent certain about all of them”.
“Are you refusing to give these names, particularly Muslim names, so you are free to intimidate them in case a case against you comes to trial?” asked McCloskey.
Pelimis denied this allegation.
Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.
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