Oric defence gets unexpected boost

Author: Lauren Etter, The Hague
Uploaded: Friday, 03 December, 2004

IWPR Tribunal Update reports that the testimony of prosecution witness James Gow has been seen as bolstering the claim that Srebrenica defence forces under Naser Oric acted out of military necessity

After a two-week recess, the trial of Naser Oric resumed this week in the Hague with testimony from an expert prosecution witness, which at times seemed to support the defence case more than the prosecution one. It was followed by the one-day testimony of a Bosnian Serb girl, a former prisoner, who testified via video-link from the region.

Oric, a Bosnian Muslim military commander in the Srebrenica area, is accused of overseeing the plundering and looting of Serb villages and the mistreatment and deaths of Serb detainees during the summer of 1992 through the winter of 1993. The crimes he is accused of were all allegedly committed in the aftermath of a major ethnic cleansing operation in eastern Bosnia in which Bosnian Serb troops expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Some 40,000 of them found the shelter in the town of Srebrenica, which was at the time defended by Oric's troops.

The prosecution claims that these troops overstepped the boundaries of necessary defence by attacking Serb villages in the area, plundering and burning them to the ground. But the testimony of their first witness this week, Dr James Gow, contained elements that reinforced the line taken by Oric's defence, which has tried to present him as a military commander who desperately tried to protect Bosnian Muslims against a Serb ethnic cleansing policy, or ‘slow-motion genocide’.

In his description of the events following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, Gow - a political scientist at the Department of War Studies at the King's College London - said that in an attempt to maintain a measure of unity following Slovenia's and Croatia's June 1991 declaration of independence, Serbia embarked on a so-called ‘Greater Serbia’ project, a plan to enlarge Serbia's borders at the expense of territories in Bosnia and Croatia.

Serbia's overwhelming military forces employed a strategy of ethnic cleansing in order to obtain their objective, Gow said, noting that this included ‘the use of killing, atrocity, forcible expulsion and fear’. In eastern Bosnia, such a policy culminated in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, where some 7,000 Muslim men and boys were summarily executed and piled in mass graves. This is considered to be the worst crime committed in Europe since the Second World War and is the first legally proven case of genocide after the Holocaust.

In addition to Serbia's overall strategic objectives, Gow also talked about the evolving military structure of Serb forces. He painted a picture of a multi-layered defence system that had separate chains of command but that was ultimately subject to authorities in neighbouring Serbia. The official Yugoslav army was supposed to have withdrawn from the Bosnian territory by the early summer of 1992. But in Gow's opinion it left its heavy weaponry to the soldiers and officers of Bosnian Serb origin, who assumed a new name in order to appease international politicians, while retaining the contacts with the army's structures in Serbia.

These remaining forces were known as territorial defence units, and were comprised of local community members who retained day jobs but remained ready to fight as part of the army when necessary. Gow said that these units had their own arsenal hidden in mountains and warehouses in the area. ‘The idea was that everybody and everything would be mobilised if it came to that time,’ he explained.

This point seems to be far more supportive of the defence, who has been trying to show that Oric and his forces did not carry out military operations indiscriminately, but rather out of military necessity - and against a well-armed mobilised population. Since the beginning of the trial, the chamber has heard hours of witness testimony about so-called village guards. The prosecution alleges that these were a loose affiliation of people intent on protecting their homes from Muslim attacks. But the defence claims - and Gow's testimony seems to confirm - that they were actually part of the organised Serb army and therefore legitimate military targets.

Perhaps recognising that the defence was gaining more from their witness than they would want, in the middle of cross-examination the prosecution took issue with the fact that the defence team was in essence using the witness to expand on the examination in chief rather than contesting anything he had previously said in court. ‘It appears to be more of an eliciting of evidence’ rather than a regular cross-examination, said the prosecution team, and the trial chamber largely agreed. ‘Who is accused in this trial?’ the presiding judge Carmel Agius of Malta rhetorically asked Oric's lawyers. ‘It is not the government of the [Bosnian Serbs], it is not the Serbian people. Who is accused in this trial is your client.’

The defence concluded their cross-examination with a series of questions related to the military capabilities of the Serbs in eastern Bosnia and the dismal situation of Muslims living in the region during the war. Gow confirmed that the so-called Greater Serbia project meant that Muslims were ‘obliged through death or physical evacuation to move’ and that there was an actual risk of starvation and violent death for the people in Srebrenica. ‘That was the intention of the Serbian campaign,’ he said. However, this did not preclude non-Serbs from committing crimes too. ‘It does not follow that there [could not have been] crimes against the non-Muslim population,’ the witness said.

The next witness testimony was a dramatic shift from that offered by Gow. Svetlana Trifunovic, now aged 23, testified about her experiences as an 11-year-old held prisoner in one of Srebrenica's detention units.

In her testimony, Trifunovic told the trial chamber that she was imprisoned for one month after her village of Kostolomci was raided. She said that even though the prison guards treated her and other women prisoners well, she could hear cries coming from the neighbouring cell, which held male prisoners. ‘I heard the Muslim soldiers laughing while the Serbs in the cell were crying and moaning,’ Trifunovic said.

She said that at one point as she was being escorted to the prison bathroom, she caught a glimpse of her grandfather who was ‘black and blue’ from being beaten. But the defence claimed that these beatings cannot be traced to his imprisonment.

She also said that at one point she heard that a man named Naser Oric was ‘in charge’, but she could not say in charge of what. The defence implied that what was meant was that he was merely in charge of the prisoner exchange. She offered no evidence to show that Oric was ‘in charge’ in terms of overall command structures, or of Srebrenica prisons.

But while Trifunovic testified that she was imprisoned for one month, in cross-examination the defence produced a statement saying she was actually only held for two days prior to her release. Her testimony raised again questions about the credibility of witnesses in this case - one issue that has been coming up regularly since the beginning of the trial.

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