Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

Karadzic Witness Pressed on Own Role at Srebrenica

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Rachel Irwin
Publication Date 7 June 2013
Citation / Document Symbol TRI Issue 793
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Karadzic Witness Pressed on Own Role at Srebrenica, 7 June 2013, TRI Issue 793, available at: [accessed 18 February 2018]
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.

A convicted senior officer in the wartime Bosnian Serb police faced intensive questioning from prosecutors this week about his failure to protect Bosniak prisoners during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Ljubomir Borovcanin was testifying as a defence witness for wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

In 2010, Borovcanin was found guilty of aiding and abetting extermination, murder, persecution and inhumane acts. He was additionally found guilty of murder under the mode of command responsibility. (For more, see Convictions in Srebrenica Seven Trial.)

Currently serving a 17 year prison sentence in Denmark, Borovcanin was brought to the Hague tribunal specially to give testimony on Karadzic's behalf.

Karadzic, who represents himself in the courtroom, did not ask his witness any questions, and confined himself to reading out a brief summary of his written statement.

"Mr Borovcanin had no knowledge of any plan whatsoever to execute prisoners from Srebrenica," Karadzic said. "From everything he knows about attitude and character of Radovan Karadzic, he would find it extremely difficult to believe that President Karadzic would agree to the killing of any prisoners."

Karadzic is charged with genocide in relation to the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, during which more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

In the summary, Karadzic also mentioned that Borovcanin - who at the time was deputy commander of a special police brigade under the auspices of the Bosnian Serb interior ministry - was present in the Sandici meadow on July 13 when army commander Ratko Mladic told a large group of prisoners being held there that they would be would be "transported to their families to Kladanj and Tuzla".

"Borovcanin believed Mladic was sincere and that this was what would happen," Karadzic said.

He said that when Borovcanin drove by it later that day, he saw "20 or 30 bodies lying in front of Kravica warehouse building".

Seeing this, Borovcanin stopped, Karadzic said. "He was told that one of Muslim prisoners had grabbed a police officer's rifle and killed him, and then another officer struggled to take the rifle from the prisoner and his hands got burned in the process. He was told that some Muslim prisoners had been killed as result of this incident and those were the bodies he had seen."

In their judgement against Borovcanin and his five co-defendants in 2010, Hague judges concluded that "at least" 1,000 prisoners were subsequently killed inside the warehouse.

"Borovcanin knew that his units were amongst the Bosnian Serb forces with custody and/or control of Bosnian Muslim prisoners that day and therefore had a duty to protect the remaining prisoners in the warehouse," the judges wrote. "The first and only step Borovcanin took after seeing the evidence of prisoner executions was to remove himself and his men from the Kravica warehouse as quickly as he could.… Borovcanin's failure to protect the Bosnian Muslim prisoners then still detained substantially contributed to the full-scale execution which later took place at Kravica warehouse."

During this week's cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Peter McCloskey seized on events mentioned by Karadzic during the evidence summary.

"We've just heard the [accused] remind us all of Mladic's now famous speech where he told prisoners [in the Sandici meadow] nothing would happen to them. As you sit here today, can you admit that you now know General Mladic was lying?" McCloskey asked.

"I would like to make a correction there," Borovcanin said. "I don't think I ever said… that I was informed that nothing would happen to them.… [Mladic] told me they would be transported to territory controlled by the [Bosnian government] army. If I can tell today whether he was lying or not - well, my reply is: I cannot say that I do. There is no reason for me to change my opinion."

McCloskey then asked the witness whether he was aware that "all those people at the meadow were taken away and summarily executed".

"I believe that they were taken away and probably a certain number, or maybe even a large number, were executed," Borovcanin said.

"In your statement, you do not acknowledge that you or your men committed any crimes associated with your work at Srebrenica from July 11-16. Do you stand by that?" McCloskey asked.

"When you interviewed me for the first time, that's what I said. I was sure of that. I know, however, that at least two members of my unit took part in the incident at Kravica," Borovcanin said.

"Are you claiming you committed no crimes associated with Srebrenica?" McCloskey asked.

The witness said he was not claiming that.

"Tell us what crimes you committed. How many people did you kill?" McCloskey asked.

"I personally?" asked Borovcanin.

"How many people did you kill? did you take part in killing? How many murders did you contribute to in some way?" McCloskey asked.

"The best answer to your question can be found in the judgement. That was read out to me here in this courtroom.… During the trial it was established that a certain amount of people under my command took part in some actions, including murder. I cannot speak about numbers," the witness said.

"So you acknowledge that your conviction was righteous and you admit what was found in that conviction?" McCloskey asked.

"The fact that I didn't appeal the judgement, and neither did you, commits me to accept facts from the judgement," Borovcanin answered.

McCloskey then pointed out that the witness had been convicted in part for failing to punish perpetrators for the killings at Kravica warehouse. He quoted the judgement, which stated that "at least 1,000 men and boys were murdered" there.

"Do you admit that to be true?" the lawyer asked.

"I cannot confirm that this is true. I can speak about the part that was mentioned in my statement, namely what I saw. Everything else is about facts and proving facts, and with time these numbers change," Borovcanin said.

"So you deny this sentence?" McCloskey asked.

"No, I don't deny it, but I don't think it refers exclusively to me," Borovcanin replied.

McCloskey then asked the witness to confirm a line from the judgement stating that he "knew hundreds of prisoners had been caught at Sandici meadow" earlier in the day on July 13.

Borovcanin confirmed he knew that.

McCloskey continued reading out from the judgement. "'Therefore in the evening, Kravica warehouse was crammed with Bosnian Muslim prisoners.' You admit that?"

"I accept what I saw; that is what I know," the witness said.

McCloskey pressed his question, asking, "Do you agree with conclusion that warehouse was jammed full of prisoners?"

"I cannot say that it was jammed full, but there were a certain number of prisoners," Borovcanin said.

"As a police officer, you had duty to protect every one of those prisoners, right?" McCloskey asked, his voice rising.

Borovcanin took a deep breath before answering.

"When I came [to the warehouse], I did see a number of killed people, but at that point nothing else was going on, there was no other activity, there was no shooting, the killings did not take place in continuity," he said.

"As a police officer and a combat soldier, did you understand that you had a duty to protect prisoners?" McCloskey asked.

"In general, yes," Borovcanin said.

"But not these prisoners in particular?" McCloskey retorted.

"That's not what I meant. My general duty, the duty of anyone who is keeping prisoners no matter what their status is, to treat them as such. I believe and I assert that the prisoners in question were not exclusively my own, they were not held by my unit alone," Borovcanin said.

"You're telling us others are to blame as well. The VRS [Bosnian Serb army]?" the prosecutor asked.

"I think all those who are guilty should be blamed… I am one of them and I was sentenced. The warehouse at Kravica, which has several buildings, is a stand-alone facility [and] it is surrounded by barbed wire. It has workers there assigned to work duty," Borovcanin said, adding that some of these workers were on duty at the time.

"You're blaming the fruit pickers of Kravica cooperative now?" McCloskey asked.

"I am not blaming anyone. However, I think all aspects need to be investigated," Borovcanin replied.

McCloskey then asked whether the witness "put responsibility on the fruit pickers or on the people responsible for this nightmare".

"I'm not blaming any fruit pickers because there were none. No one goes to pick fruit with weapons. Due to the circumstances and the situation of that building where the prisoners were, at least we have the issue of divided responsibility at hand," Borovcanin said.

McCloskey then asked whether the witness accepted the section of the judgement that found he aided and abetted extermination because he "knew that the failure to protect would lead to killing on a large scale".

Borovcanin said he did accept this.

"My point is, do you admit it? Is it a proper and truthful conclusion?" McCloskey asked.

"In my view, this is a very complex legal formulation which is beyond my competence," Borovcanin replied.

"Is it your duty to protect someone in your custody from butchers? It's not very complex," McCloskey said.

"It is my duty and obligation, all the regulations say so. However, I say that after the first incident, the people in the warehouse were not under my authority," the witness maintained.

McCloskey then turned to Karadzic's role in the events at hand.

"When a massive crime occurs, doesn't President Karadzic need to be informed? How can he do his job if he's not informed? He's not just a potted plant [at Bosnian Serb headquarters] in Pale, is he?" the prosecutor asked.

"If that was his duty, he should have been informed," Borovcanin replied.

"It was his duty to abide by the Geneva Conventions, wasn't it?" the prosecutor asked.

"It wasn't only his duty, he cautioned all of his subordinates reminding them of that obligation," Borovcanin said.

"Then why do you say 'if'? Is there some doubt that he had the duty to protect hundreds and hundreds of people?" McCloskey asked.

"I was never president of the state so I'm not familiar with his authority. There were different events during the war and I don't believe the president could react to everything. I'm not saying this couldn't be one such event," the witness said.

The trial continues next week.

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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