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

Insajder povezao Karadžića sa zločinom u Srebrenici

At Dragan Obrenovic's sentencing hearing, both Defense Counsel and Prosecutor entreated the Court for leniency. Using superlatives, Prosecutor Peter McCloskey stressed how important it was for someone of Obrenovic's rank to come forward and tell the truth. Obrenovic was Deputy Commander of the Zvornik Brigade for three critical days in July 1995. He released members of his brigade to assist with the campaign of killing thousands of Bosnian Muslim prisoners. He followed orders and asked few questions. Yet, following his indictment for his part in those crimes, he also, 'steadfastly accepted responsibility for that conduct . . . and has never offered excuses. . . ,' the Prosecutor argued in a written supplemental submission to the Court.

Addressing Obrenovic's cooperation with the Prosecution during his seven-day testimony in the trial of two former co-indictees (Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic), Mr. McCloskey concluded, 'He came across clear and with the kind of strength the Prosecution rarely sees with a cooperating witness.' In its supplemental submission, the Prosecutor wrote, 'Mr. Obrenovic's testimony was extraordinary in its objectivity, clarity and integrity. Mr. Obrenovic described without hesitation or excuse how the plan to kill thousands of Muslim prisoners was communicated to him, adopted by him and implemented by him as the Deputy Commander of the Zvornik Brigade.' It is testimony, McCloskey said, the Court can count on and by which it can evaluate other testimony in the Blagojevic and Jokic trial, the Krstic appeal and future Srebrenica trials.

The Prosecutor also advised the Court of the 'invaluable' assistance Mr. Obrenovic provided by sharing his military knowledge and expertise. In its supplemental submission the Prosecutor argued, 'As the wartime Chief of Staff/Deputy Commander and post war Commander of the Zvornik Brigade, Mr. Obrenovic had a wealth of knowledge related to the inner workings of the VRS (Army of the Republika Srpska), in particular on issues related to the Security Branch and Command. Prior to the testimony of Mr. Obrenovic , the OTP had to rely on regulations, laws and manuals and outside military experts. . . . The importance of this inside view of the VRS cannot be overstated. . . .'

Longtime observers of the Tribunal note the rarity of such prosecutorial praise for accused who plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution. It led Mr. McCloskey to recommend 'without reservation' a sentence in the range of 15 to 20 years imprisonment. General Krstic, convicted of command responsibility for genocide and other crimes in Srebrenica, received a sentence of 46 years in prison.

Another remarkable occurrence at the sentencing hearing was the statement by Mr. David Wilson, Defense Counsel for Mr. Obrenovic. Mr. Wilson reminded the Court of human frailty and imperfectability. He described Mr. Obrenovic as a good man, who had led an exemplary life until the fateful day of July 13, 1995. It was on that date he received a call from a military policeman under his command, asking to be released to assist with a massive operation to guard, detain and kill thousands of prisoners. Though Mr. Obrenovic was a career military man who was well aware of the Geneva Conventions which prohibit the murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war, he merely said he needed to check with his superiors and, when he was assured they knew about the campaign, he released the MP. He went on to authorize additional assistance to the operation, while he turned his attention to the less troublesome and less ambiguous battlefront.

The tragedy of Dragan Obrenovic is that he was a 'golden boy,' as described by his Counsel. He was 'a young man who, through his intellect, courage and natural abilities, would have risen to the top of any Army in the world. . . who was admired and respected by his superiors and subordinates alike and by the civilian community which he served. . . . He was a soldier's soldier, the type of officer of whom it is said in military circles, 'His men and women subordinates would have followed him down the barrel of a cannon. . . .' That is also the tragedy of Dragan Obrenovic -- and of the people who admired and served under him. As Mr. Wilson asked rhetorically, 'What would have happened if he had said 'no' to their request for assistance in their gruesome task?' To his credit, Mr. Obrenovic himself never argued that it would not have made any difference. No one can know. He himself must wonder, if he was so widely respected and admired, would his conscientious refusal have spurred the consciences of others?

Mr. Wilson argued that the young officer's very success and acclaim placed him in a position he was not prepared for and which was his undoing. 'Young men and women of exceptional ability like Dragan Obrenovic are spotted by their elders and marked for great things. They are pushed along at a more rapid pace than their contemporaries. They are given responsibilities and promotions usually reserved for those who are older, more mature, more seasoned and more experienced. . . . They, in turn, are led to believe that they can do anything, that no task is beyond their natural talents and abilities, that intellect and energy are all that is required, and that new and more challenging assignments are simply more opportunities to excel.' The 'golden boys and girls' come to believe in their own invincibility. That his how Dragan Obrenovic ended up in Srebrenica in the middle of a massive killing and ethnic cleansing campaign, at the same time he was called upon to fight an intensive battle with the Bosnian Army's 28th Division with inadequate forces. It also led him to the choice every officer and soldier must dread -- whether to disobey an illegal superior order.

The irony is that many soldiers did disobey such orders in the Bosnian and Croatian wars. They laid down their rifles, returned their equipment and walked off the battlefield. Many thousands of other young men refused conscription orders, hid or left the country. Most were probably not the 'golden boys and girls.' Privilege carries a price with it. Those admitted into the higher ranks owe their status and self concept to that company. It becomes, perhaps, harder to defy.

Addressing the Court that will decide his client's fate, Mr. Wilson, having pointed out Mr. Obrenovic's outstanding abilities and successes, asked, 'What did Dragan Obrenovic do when he was faced with this most important test of his life?' And answered himself, 'The young man who could not fail, failed spectacularly.' He did what was asked of him and helped carry out mass murder. Mr. Wilson reminded the Court that when his client was asked 'Why,' 'Dragan Obrenovic admitted what for him must have been the most painful of admissions: I was afraid.'

Clearly moved by his client's tragedy, Mr. Wilson told the Court that it gave him pause from declaring with certainty that he, in Mr. Obrenovic's position, would have made the right choice. 'It is easy for me, at roughly twice Dragan Obrenovic's age in 1995, to sit in my study in Seattle and say what mistakes I would never permit myself to make. But in the privacy of my innermost thoughts, I have remembered another young man who at thirty-two was also an officer, in another army, during another war, in another part of the world, and I have wondered if there were any imaginable circumstances in which that young man might have stumbled with such tragic results. Thirty-odd years later, I am secretly relieved that that young man was never put to such a test, and that he need never answer that hypothetical question.'

Dragan Obrenovic's hard choices did not end in mid-July 1995, nor was the 'book of his life' closed, as Mr. Wilson advised the Court. 'Knowing as he did that he was to be charged with a role in the crimes of Srebrenica, Dragan Obrenovic had three choices: He could join all of the other accused individuals who remain free and beyond the reach of the Tribunal. Theirs is a precarious existence, yet all of us know that many of those who planned the executions and actually ordered them and even pulled the triggers have very substantial chances of never seeing The Hague. In the meantime, they are free, and in the eyes of many of their countrymen, enjoy the status of heroes and enjoy the active support of those citizens. Dragan Obrenovic had this option presented to him. He did not flee.'

His client's second option, Mr. Wilson said, was to contest the charges against him and drag out the issue of his guilt for several more years. 'Here again, he would have enjoyed the continuing status of a hero among many of his fellow countrymen, and if he had been ultimately convicted, he would have been viewed by those same people as not only a hero, but now also a victim. And when on some distant future date he eventually served his sentence and returned home, he would have been so welcomed back into their midst. He declined the option of denying his guilt.'

Instead, Mr. Obrenovic chose the third option, pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with the Prosecution 'in its effort to fairly affix responsibility for what transpired in July 1995. Having rejected two courses of action which would have made him a hero to many, he chose a course of action which consigned him to a very different status with those same people. It is a hard road that he has chosen.'

If Mr. Obrenovic had made the hard choice in July 1995, he might have lost his life. He certainly would have lost all rank and privilege. By making the wrong choice, he very nearly lost his soul. But Mr. Wilson reminded the Court that 'if one makes the wrong choice, that is not the end of the matter. His responsibilities do not end, and the book of his life is not yet closed. He still must decide what he is going to do about his mistake. Should he refuse to acknowledge it, and fold himself into the comforting surroundings of others who also made that mistake? Or should he confront that mistake, admit the mistake, repent and strive to earn forgiveness?'

Earlier in his statement, Mr. Wilson contrasted this deputy commander's choice with that of his superiors, who remain fugitives from indictments brought against them. 'Those individuals include his entire chain of command, even its civilian president. Almost all of those individuals remain fugitives from justice, hiding in the Balkan hills and leaving their people to face the world's opprobrium flowing from the enormity of their misconduct.' Mr. Obrenovic, as he said in his statement to the Court, wanted to accept his individual responsibility in part to lift the collective responsibility that has descended on the Serb nation. [See CIJ Report of October 31, 2003, ''I Am To Blame,' Srebrenica Defendant Tells Court.']

Despite his good intentions and those of the Tribunal, it will take more than the guilty plea of one man to do that. But that one man, by accepting responsibility and speaking the truth, opens wide a door of denial that has remained firmly closed. The question is whether others, those who shared in commission of the crimes as well as those who live in steadfast denial, will choose to walk through that door and follow his example. Mr. Obrenovic's road is indeed a hard one, but it is the only one leading to a possible future of peace and reconciliation. Those who continue following and lionizing the leaders who brought them war, death and hatred choose that legacy for their children and grandchildren.

As for Dragan Obrenovic's future, the Court will decide it by the end of the year. In concluding remarks, Mr. Wilson told the Court, 'Dragan Obrenovic is a man with many redeeming qualities. He has shown himself worthy of your mercy and deserving of an opportunity to salvage as much of his once promising life as you are willing to accord him. Whatever sentence you give him, he will make the most of.' Defense Counsel recommended a sentence of 8 to 12 years.

The dead of Srebrenica, the survivors, the relatives and friends were not physically present in the courtroom. They were, of course, the reason for the proceeding. Dragan Obrenovic, through his remorse and guilty plea, cannot return the dead to life or life to the way it was before the mass killings and ethnic cleansing. Even if they or some of them were to forgive him -- something only victims can initiate and offer -- he must also make peace with himself. As Mr. Wilson told the Court, 'He has already sentenced himself. He is like Lady MacBeth, sentenced forever to the Sisyphean task of washing her hands in a futile attempt to erase an indelible stain.'

Nevertheless, Mr. Obrenovic has made a worthy gift to the victims and survivors, the gift of truth.