Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 13:25 GMT

Witness Describes Harrowing Prison Conditions

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Simon Jennings
Publication Date 6 March 2009
Citation / Document Symbol TU No 591
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Witness Describes Harrowing Prison Conditions, 6 March 2009, TU No 591, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49b61c8a2.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

He said he and other Bosniak and Croat detainees were beaten repeatedly by Serb captors.

By Simon Jennings in The Hague (TU No 591, 6-Mar-09)

A witness this week gave an account of his 18-month stint in a detention camp where he said the Bosnian Serb guards beat him "at breakfast, lunch and dinner".

Alija Gusalic, a Bosniak construction worker, was giving evidence in the Hague tribunal trial of ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, who is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity between August 1991 and September 1993.

During his testimony at the Hague tribunal, the witness also admitted attempting to kill a group of Seselj's supporters with a grenade, so that people might be "left in peace".

Prosecutors allege that Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, waged a campaign of murder, torture and persecution in an effort to drive non-Serbs out of parts of Bosnia and Croatia during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Gusalic told the court that in June 1992, he was taken with three other prisoners from his home town of Bijeljina in northern Bosnia to the Batkovic detention camp five kilometres away.

Asked by the prosecution what the prisoners were beaten with, the witness replied, "It would be better if you asked me what they didn't beat us with - chains, sticks, axe handles... Eventually, they would use stones, and I would have to kneel to make it easier for them to hit me."

Gusalic said he suffered five broken ribs and a broken arm, as well as injuries to his back and head.

Prosecutor Lisa Biersay asked the witness who had beaten him.

"Serbs," he replied. "And, regrettably, there were also two Bosniaks who also beat the prisoners to save their own skin."

According to Gusalic, there were around 2,000 Bosniak and Croat prisoners at the Batkovic camp, including elderly and children.

After three months in Batkovic, the witness said he was taken to a smaller facility in the municipality of Doboj, where he remained for eleven and a half months.

There, prisoners were forced to do hard labour and bring back the dead from the battle lines in surrounding villages, he said.

"When there was shooting, when there were clashes, we would pull out the dead. Some were Chetniks, some were Muslims," Gusalic told judges, using the term employed by Bosniaks and Croats to refer to Serbian ultra-nationalists.

Although Seselj is not charged with events related to the Batkovic and Doboj camps, prosecutors explained this week that the evidence was presented in order to show the wider pattern of crimes committed in the region.

Gusalic also testified about events in Bijeljina before war broke out there in March 1992.

According to the indictment, Seselj participated in a joint criminal plan to permanently remove Muslim and other non-Serb people from large parts of Bosnia, including Bijeljina "in order to make these areas part of a new Serb-dominated state".

Prosecutors also allege that the defendant made inflammatory speeches and held political rallies to instigate crimes.

Gusalic told judges that Seselj had held a political rally in front of the municipal building in Bijeljina before March 1992. He explained that everybody in the town was there to hear Seselj's speech and that afterwards, a fight broke out between Serbs and Bosniaks.

"He made them quarrel with his speeches," he said of the defendant.

Presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti asked Gusalic why other witnesses who have testified in the case about events in Bijeljina had not mentioned this particular rally.

"Because they were afraid," replied the witness, who no longer lives in his home town.

"I never want to go back. Those people there are afraid to speak out. They are afraid to say anything."

Speaking about events in Bijeljina in early 1992, Gusalic testified that individuals associated with Seselj's SRS began arming people in the town.

"It was Mr Seselj, Arkan, and Mirko Blagojevic. They were the ones arming people," he said.

Arkan was the nom de guerre of Serb paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, who was assassinated in 2000, three years after being indicted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Blagojevic was the local leader of the SRS.

The witness described being in the cafe on March 31 and seeing the followers of Seselj, Arkan, and Blagojevic, all armed and ready to attack Bijeljina.

"They were going to occupy it," he said.

"[The cafe] was full of armed men. I could tell it was Arkan's men and Seselj's men because they spoke with different accents from ours. Their accents were those that people from Serbia had. I had grown up there."

The witness recounted how he went to fetch a hand grenade, then rode his horse back with the intention of throwing the grenade into the cafe.

But before he was able to carry out his plan, he was shot in the leg, causing him and his horse to fall to the ground, he said.

Puzzled by the witness's story, judges asked him to explain his actions.

"Had I thrown the hand grenade in[to] the cafe, the Chetniks who had arrived in Bosnia and Bijeljina from Serbia might have been killed," he explained. "I might have been killed too, but the other people might have been left in peace to continue their lives normally."

The witness said he was taken to the local hospital "which was taken over by Chetniks two or three days later".

After nine days, the witness was released from the hospital only to receive a threatening letter some time later, he said.

" 'Turk, the time has come for you to pay for what you have done to us'," he recalled the letter as having read.

"It was signed 'Chetniks' because those that wrote the letter did not want to sign their actual names."

The witness said he was arrested and taken to Batkovic soon afterwards.

During his cross-examination of the witness, Seselj sought to undermine the credibility of his testimony by referring to his apparent criminal record. The witness admitted he had been convicted of a misdemeanour before the war, although it was not clear what this was for.

"It is obvious from his entire dossier that he was involved in countless brawls and fights and that he was known for his asocial behaviour," Seselj told judges. "I put it to you that the entire testimony of this witness is false."

Seselj then denied that the SRS had held a rally in Bijeljina in early 1992.

"I am telling you there was no meeting of the Serbian Radical Party at all in Bijeljina before the war. The first meeting I held [was] in 1993 in the spring outside the municipal building, and you were not there," he said to Gusalic.

Antonetti sought confirmation from the witness who insisted that the rally had taken place.

Questioning the witness's description of events at the Batkovic camp, Seselj contended that Gusalic had been beaten by Bosniaks and not Serbs.

"The witness claims he was beaten by Serb guards in the Batkovic camp, that is not true," he told the court.

"He was beaten almost to death by his own compatriots there, also prisoners of the camp. That basically refutes the veracity of his testimony."

The reasons behind Seselj's conclusion were discussed in closed session.

On the completion of Gusalic's evidence, judges adjourned the war crimes proceedings indefinitely, following their decision on February 11 to suspend the trial after prosecutors alleged that witnesses were being intimidated.

Seselj, along with his legal advisers in Serbia, has denied intimidating witnesses.

The accused is also charged with contempt of court for allegedly disclosing the names of protected witnesses in a book. These proceedings, which got under way at the tribunal this week, are not affected by the suspension.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR journalist in The Hague.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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